The First Primates

time scale illustrating recency of primate evolutionPrimates are remarkably recent animals.  Most species of living things had become extinct long before the first monkeys and their prosimian ancestors evolved.  While the Earth is about 4.55 billion years old and the first life dates to at least 3.5 billion years ago, the first primates did not appear until around 60 million years ago.  That was after the dinosaurs had become extinct.

Map of earth at 65 million years ago

65,000,000 years ago

Map of earth as it is today


Transitional primate-like creatures were evolving by the end of the Mesozoic Era (ca. 65 million years ago).   At that time, the world was very different from today.  The continents were in other locations and they had somewhat different shapes.  North America was still connected to Europe but not to South America.  India was not yet part of Asia but heading towards it.  Australia was close to Antarctica.  Most land masses had warm tropical or subtropical climates.

 painting of a small mammal from the Mesozoic Era
 Small Insectivore from the
 end of the Mesozoic Era

The flora and fauna click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced at the end of the Mesozoic Era  would have seemed alien since most of the plants and animals that are familiar to us had not yet evolved.  Large reptiles were beginning to be replaced by mammals as the dominant large land animals.  Among the mammals, there were a few archaic egg-layers (monotremes) like the ancestors of the platypus and echidna.  There were larger numbers of pouched opossum-like mammals (marsupials).  The few placental mammals that existed at that time mainly consisted of the Insectivore click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced ancestors of primates.  The large grass-eating placental mammals, such as cattle and wildebeest,  were absent as were the vast grasslands that would later develop.  Rodents and small-seed eating birds were also absent.  The great proliferation of flowering plants had not taken place yet, however, forests of broad-leafed trees were developing over much of the earth.


The first primate-like mammals, or proto-primates click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, were roughly similar to squirrels and tree shrews in size and appearance.  The existing, very fragmentary fossil evidence (mostly from North Africa) suggests that they were adapted to an arboreal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced way of life in warm, moist climates.  They probably were equipped with relatively good eyesight as well as hands and feet with pads and claws for climbing.  These proto-primates will remain rather shadowy creatures for us until more fossil data becomes available.

Early primate-like mammals do not seem to have played an important role in the general transformation of terrestrial animal life immediately following the massive global extinctions of plants and animals that occurred approximately 65,000,000 years ago.  The most dramatic changes were brought about by the emergence of large grazing and browsing mammals with tough hoofs, grinding teeth, and digestive tracts specialized for the processing of grass, leaves, and other fibrous plant materials.  The evolution of these herbivorous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced mammals provided the opportunity for the evolution of the carnivorous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced mammals specialized to eat them.  These new hunters and scavengers included the dogs, cats, and bears.  Adaptive radiation was resulting in the evolution of new species to fill expanding ecological niches, or food getting opportunities.  Most of these new animals were placental mammals.  With the exception of bats, none of them reached Australia and New Guinea.  This explains why they did not exist there until people brought them in recent times.  South America had also drifted away from Africa and was not connected to North America after 80,000,000 years ago.  However, around 20,000,000 years ago, South America reconnected with North America and placental mammals streamed in for the first time, resulting in the extinction of most of the existing marsupial fauna there.

Early Prosimians

Cenozoic Era time chart focusing on the Paleocene and Eocene EpochsThe first primates may have evolved during the last part of the Paleocene Epoch click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  These were members of the genus Altiatlasius click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Their bones have been found in 60,000,000 year old geological deposits in Morocco, but they probably lived in other areas at this time as well.  They looked different from the primates today.  They were still somewhat squirrel-like in size and appearance, but apparently they had grasping hands and feet that were increasingly more efficient in manipulating objects and climbing trees.  It is likely that they were developing effective stereoscopic vision. 

drawing of Smilodectes as it may have appeared  

(lemur-like family Adapidae  
from the Eocene Epoch)  

The beginning of the Eocene Epoch click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced coincides with the appearance of early forms of most of the placental mammal orders that are present today.  Among them were primate species that somewhat resemble modern prosimians such as lemurs, lorises, and possibly tarsiers.  This was the epoch of maximum prosimian adaptive radiation.  There were at least 60 genera of them that were mostly in two families--the Adapidae click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (similar to lemurs and lorises) and the  Omomyidae click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (possibly like galagos and tarsiers).  This is nearly four times greater prosimian diversity than today.  Eocene prosimians lived in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.  It was during this epoch that they reached the island of Madagascar.  The great diversity of Eocene prosimians was probably a consequence of the fact that they did not have competition from monkeys and apes since these latter more advanced primates had not yet evolved.

Major evolutionary changes were beginning in some of the Eocene prosimians that foreshadow species yet to come.   Their brains and eyes were becoming larger, while their snouts were getting smaller.  At the base of a skull, there is a hole through which the spinal cord passes.  This opening is the foramen magnum click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (literally the "large hole or opening" in Latin).  The position of the foramen magnum is a strong indicator of the angle of the spinal column to the head and subsequently whether the body is habitually horizontal (like a horse) or vertical (like a monkey).  During the Eocene, the foramen magnum in some primate species was beginning to move from the back of the skull towards the center. This suggests that they were beginning to hold their bodies erect while hopping and sitting, like modern lemurs, galagos, and tarsiers.

Eocene Era primate and modern human skulls with the foramen magnum highlighted on both skulls--it is near the back of the head of the Eocene primate and at the center of balance of the human head

Eocene Era primate and modern human skulls

By the end of the Eocene Epoch, many of the prosimian species had become extinct.  This may be connected with cooler temperatures and the appearance of the first monkeys during the transition to the next geologic epoch, the Oligocene click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (about 35.4 million years ago).

Early Monkeys and Apes

Cenozoic Era time chart focusing on the Oligocene EpochThe Oligocene Epoch was largely a gap in the primate fossil record in most parts of the world.  This is especially true for prosimian fossils.  Most of what we know about them came from the Fayum click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced deposits in Western Egypt.  While this area is a desert today, 36-31 million years ago (during the early and mid Oligocene) it was a tropical rainforest.  Other Oligocene deposits containing some fossil primate bones have been found in North and West Africa, the southern Arabian Peninsula, China, Southeast Asia, as well as North and South America.

Monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene or slightly earlier.  They were the first species of our suborder--the Anthropoidea click this icon to hear the preceding term pronouncedSeveral genera of these early monkeys have been identified--Apidium click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and Aegyptopithecus click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced are the most well known.  The former was about the size of a fat squirrel (2-3 pounds), while the latter  was the size of a large domestic cat (13-20 pounds).  Both were probably fruit and seed eating forest tree-dwellers.  Compared to the prosimians, these early monkeys had fewer teeth, less fox-like snouts, larger brains, and increasingly more forward-looking eyes. 

Due to the comparative scarcity of Oligocene Epoch prosimians, it is generally believed that the monkeys out-competed and replaced them in most environments at that time.  Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that modern prosimians either live in locations where monkeys and apes are absent or they are normally active only at nighttime when most of the larger, more intelligent primates are sleeping.

Map of the Great Rift Valley system in East Africa  
Great Rift Valley system  
(shown in green)  
 Map of India forcing up the himmalayas and the Tibetan Plateau
 India Forcing up the Himalayas
 and the Tibetan Plateau

The Oligocene was an epoch of major geological change with resulting regional climate shifts that likely affected the direction of evolution and altered fossil preservation conditions.  By the beginning of the Oligocene, North America and Europe drifted apart and became distinct continents.  The Great Rift Valley system of East Africa also was formed during the Oligocene along a 1200 mile long volcanically active fault zone between large tectonic plates.  During the early Eocene Epoch, about 55,000,000 years ago, India finally crashed into Asia and began forcing up the Himalayan chain of mountains and the Tibetan Plateau beyond.   By the Oligocene, the progressive growth of this immense barrier very likely altered continental weather patterns significantly by blocking the summer monsoonal rains.  These and other major geological events during the Oligocene triggered global climatic changes.  The cooling and drying trend that had begun in the late Eocene Epoch accelerated, especially in the Northern Hemisphere.  A result was the general disappearance of primates from these northern areas.  However, global climates were still warmer than today.

Cenozoic Era time chart focusing on the Miocene EpochBy the middle of the Miocene Epoch click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, the ongoing movement of tectonic plates created new mountain chains.  These in turn altered local weather patterns.  In addition, the progressive global cooling and drying trend continued.  Growing polar ice caps reduced the amount of water in the oceans, causing sea levels to drop.  This exposed previously submerged coastal lands.  As a result of this and tectonic movement, a land connection was reestablished between Africa and Asia that provided a migration route for primates and other animals between these continents.   Much of the East African and South Asian tropical forests began to be replaced by sparse woodlands and dry grasslands because of the climate changes.  As a result, there were new selective pressures affecting primate evolution.

Primate fossils are common from the Miocene.  However, not all primates are equally represented in the fossil record.  Apes apparently evolved from monkeys early in this epoch.  Fossil monkeys and prosimians are comparatively rare from most of the Miocene, but apes are common.  Apparently, apes at that time occupied some ecological niches that would later be filled by monkeys.

Among the Miocene primates were the ancestors of all modern species of apes and humans.  By 14 million years ago, the group of apes that included our ancestors were apparently in the process of adapting to life on the edges of the expanding savannas in Southern Europe.  They were very likely members of the genus Dryopithecus click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Toward the end of the Miocene, less hospitable cooler conditions in the Northern Hemisphere caused many primate species to become extinct while some survived by migrating south into Africa and South Asia.  About 9 million years ago, the descendants of the dryopithecines click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in Africa diverged into two lines--the gorillas and the line that would lead to humans and chimpanzees.  Around 6 million years ago, another divergence occurred which separated the chimpanzees from the early hominids click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (human-like primates) that were our direct ancestors.

click this icon in order to see the following video  Did humans evolve from apes--video clip from PBS 2001 series Evolution
        Requires RealPlayer to view         (length = 5 mins, 33 secs)

primate evolution time chart

Primates are relative newcomers on our planet.  The earliest ones are found in the fossil record only after the beginning of the Cenozoic Era.  Prosimians thrived during the first two epochs (Paleocene and Eocene).  There were no monkeys or apes for them to compete with yet.  By the time of the transition to the Oligocene Epoch, monkeys had begun to evolve from prosimians and became the dominant primates.  Many of the prosimian species became extinct probably as a consequence.  By the Miocene Epoch, apes had evolved from monkeys and displaced them from many environments.  In the late Miocene, the evolutionary line leading to hominids finally became distinct.  This hominid line included our direct ancestors.


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This page was last updated on Sunday, March 21, 2004.
Copyright 1999-2003 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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