The Evolution of Primates

Section Summary

All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees and probably descended from arboreal ancestors, although not all living species are arboreal. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger, relative to body size, than those of other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one young per pregnancy, stereoscopic vision, and a trend toward holding the body upright. Primates are divided into two groups: strepsirrhines, which include most prosimians, and haplorhines, which include simians. Monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene epoch. The simian line includes both platyrrhine and catarrhine branches. Apes evolved from catarrhines in Africa during the Miocene epoch. Apes are divided into the lesser apes and the greater apes. Hominins include those groups that gave rise to our own species, such as Australopithecus and H. erectus, and those groups that can be considered “cousins” of humans, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Fossil evidence shows that hominins at the time of Australopithecus were walking upright, the first evidence of bipedal hominins. A number of species, sometimes called archaic H. sapiens, evolved from H. erectus approximately 500,000 years ago. There is considerable debate about the origins of anatomically modern humans or H. sapiens sapiens, and the discussion will continue, as new evidence from fossil finds and genetic analysis emerges.