Scientists have identified almost 500 minuscule bones of fingers and toes belonging to primates that lived around 45 million years ago in, what is now, China.
The tiny fossils, which were described this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, reportedly offer evidence that the early ancestors of humans originated in Asia.
The bones, which represent nine different taxonomic primate families and nearly 25 species, also indicate that some of the members were only half the size of mice.
"The fossils are extraordinarily small, but in terms of quantity this is the largest single assemblage of fossil primate finger and toe specimens ever recorded," Northern Illinois University researcher, Dan Gebo said. “It also adds to the evidence pointing towards Asia as the initial continent for primate evolution. While apes and fossil humans do come from Africa, their ancestors came from Asia.”
Discovering The Fossil Haul
The newly detailed fossils were originally discovered in a commercial quarry near the village of Shanghuang in China, about 100 miles west of Shanghai in the southern Jiangsu Province.
Christopher Beard, who is a paleontologist at the University of Kansas and study coauthor, said that the limestone in the quarry was found to be from the Triassic age, a period that denotes the start of the age of the dinosaurs.
Large fissures, which contained fossil-rich sediments, had developed in the limestone due to a subsequent phase of erosion. Over 10 tons of matrix bearing the fossils were collected from the fissures in the early 1990s.
The matrix was then sent to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the US and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in China, where they were cleaned and screened. The fossil bones and teeth from ancient mammals were found, some of which have been identified and many are still unknown.
The Discovery Can Help Scientists Gain Insight Into Primate Anatomy Evolution
The researchers have suggested that the primordial primates lived in the tree canopies of ancient jungles and ate insects and fruits, based on the fossil finds. The mammals had the ability to grasp with both their hands and feet, which is a prerequisite for being able to live among treetops.
The diversity of the primate species found in the quarry are unusual and the research team hopes that the ongoing analysis can help them gain more information about the evolution of primate anatomies, such as the unique, narrow fingers and toes common to higher primates and modern anthropoids.