An artist's depiction of the early primates, which are believed to travel overseas to Africa from Asia, 39 million years ago.  (Source: National News and Pictures)

Teeth were the only fossilized remains of the primitive primates that survived in the strata.  (Source: Nature)

The recent fossil finds came from the bottom strata.  (Source: Nature)
Researchers believe that the primates evolved in Asia and only later journey to Africa, where they further evolved

As evolution is observed in the lab for the first time, there's an equal wealth of exciting discoveries in the field.  Recent primate and hominid fossil finds have filled in many missing pieces along the evolutionary path that led to man and other modern primates.

A diverse team of researchers from multiple universities and museums has published a new study on the discovery of four species of anthropoid primate discovered in the Sahara desert.  And the researchers have some very interesting ideas, based on their results.

The fossil find, which dates back to 39 million years ago, is very significant as the species are quite different from any others found in the region during the era, or during previous fossil records from the era.  The researchers believe these early primates represent the members of a primate migration from Asia.  This would account for the lack of prior fossils in the region.

These primates faced fortunate circumstances, with few creatures able to match their increased intelligence and adaptability.  As Africa was an island continent at this time, geographic isolation helped safeguard the new residents from potential competitors, according to the researchers.  As a result they thrived and conquered their new environment.

Dr Christopher Beard, of Carnegie Museum of Natural History and author of the new paper states in the UK's Daily Mail, "If our ideas are correct, this early colonization of Africa by anthropoids was a truly pivotal event—one of the key points in our evolutionary history.  It led to a period of flourishing evolutionary divergence amongst anthropoids, and one of those lineages resulted in humans. If our early anthropoid ancestors had not succeeded in migrating from Asia to Africa, we simply wouldn’t exist."

The researchers only found a few teeth, but by compare those to past discoveries and living primates, they have a good idea of the size and shape of the ancient critters.  They likely resembled small monkeys or lemurs and weighed between four and sixteen ounces -- between the weight of half a can and two cans of soda.

The fossils came from the Dur At-Talah escarpment.  The escarpment is a sharp cliff face in a rarely visited remote part of the Sahara, located in Central Libya.

The three clades that the primates belonged to have not been found in early deposits in the region, despite over 100 years of dedicated fossil collection in Africa.  Thus the team feels the evidence clearly points to the recent discoveries being recent arrivals, overseas travelers from Asia.

Dr. Bear reports, "This extraordinary new fossil site in Libya shows us that 39 million years ago there was a surprising diversity of anthropoids living in Africa, whereas few if any anthropoids are known from Africa before this time. This sudden appearance of such diversity suggests that these anthropoids probably colonized Africa from somewhere else. Without earlier fossil evidence in Africa, we’re currently looking to Asia as the place where these animals first evolved."

Even after the spread out and conquered their new environment, it took these early primates around 36 million years to evolve into hominids which bore some resemblance to man.  These early hominids appeared 2 to 3 million years ago in Africa.  The first Homo sapiens popped up 400,000 years ago, and the first modern humans -- a H. sapiens subspecies -- appeared 100,000 years ago.  These humans spread out from Africa between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago and the rest, as they say -- is history.

These migrants were not the first hominids to leave Africa.  Neanderthals reportedly similarly spread out.  When the exiting humans traveled into Europe and Asia they encountered these more primitive hominids.  While these earlier migrants would eventually go extinct, sequencing of the Neanderthal genome has revealed that humans interbred with them, allowing their genetic legacy to live on to this day.

The new study is published in Nature.

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