Fossil of common ancestor found in Burma

It’s the news like these that reminds us about how much more there is to know about human evolution. This time, an exciting fossil discovery of the jawbone and teeth of an extinct primate species has been found near Bagan, in Myanmar. The now-dubbed Ganlea megacanina was a common ancestor to humans and apes who lived 38 million years ago. The added significance of the date is that it lends support to the thesis that the common ancestor of humans and apes came not from Africa, but perhaps from Asia instead. I’ll expect we’ll revisit this idea in time to come, until more fossils are found – if they can survive this long.

Myanmar fossil may shed light on evolution

AP, 02 July 2009

A new primate from the Eocene Pondaung Formation of Myanmar and the monophyly of Burmese amphipithecids
Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 01 July 2009

Fossils recently discovered in Myanmar could prove that the common ancestors of humans, monkeys and apes — known as anthropoids — evolved from primates in Asia, rather than Africa, researchers contend in a study released Wednesday.

The 38 million-year-old pieces of jawbones and teeth are part of a growing body of evidence that is helping scientists to understand the origin of primates, said Dr. Chris Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and a member of the team who found the fossils near Bagan in central Myanmar in 2005.

“When we found it, we knew we had a new type of primate and basically what kind of primate it was,” Beard said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh. “It turns out that jaws and teeth are very diagnostic. … They are almost like fingerprints for fossils like this.”

The findings were published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B, a London-based peer-reviewed journal.

And the abstract of the paper:

The family Amphipithecidae is one of the two fossil primate taxa from Asia that appear to be early members of the anthropoid clade. Ganlea megacanina, gen. et sp. nov., is a new amphipithecid from the late middle Eocene Pondaung Formation of central Myanmar. The holotype of Ganlea is distinctive in having a relatively enormous lower canine showing heavy apical wear, indicating an important functional role of the lower canine in food preparation and ingestion. A phylogenetic analysis of amphipithecid relationships suggests that Ganlea is the sister taxon of Myanmarpithecus, a relatively small-bodied taxon that has often, but not always, been included in Amphipithecidae. Pondaungia is the sister taxon of the Ganlea + Myanmarpithecus clade. All three Pondaung amphipithecid genera are monophyletic with respect to Siamopithecus, which is the most basal amphipithecid currently known. The inclusion of Myanmarpithecus in Amphipithecidae diminishes the likelihood that amphipithecids are specially related to adapiform primates. Extremely heavy apical wear has been documented on the lower canines of all three genera of Burmese amphipithecids. This distinctive wear pattern suggests that Burmese amphipithecids were an endemic radiation of hard object feeders that may have been ecological analogues of living New World pitheciin monkeys.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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