Five Early Primates You Should Know

Scientists have identified dozens of early primates, based on teeth, but still have a hard time assessing how these mammals relate to modern primates

An artist’s reconstruction of Purgatorius, a probable primate ancestor.
An artist’s reconstruction of Purgatorius, a probable primate ancestor. Nobu Tamura/Wikicommons

Finding the earliest primates isn’t easy. The first members or our order probably lived about 65 million years ago and were rat-sized critters known mainly from teeth. With such scant evidence, researchers have had a hard time classifying these creatures and making connections to modern primates. Still, scientists have identified dozens of early primate, or probable primate, species. If you’re unfamiliar with our earliest origins, here are five primates to know.

Purgatorius: Discovered at Montana’s Hell Creek Formation, this shrew-sized mammal lived roughly 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. Purgatorius‘ place in the primate family tree is debated. Aspects of the genus’ teeth align it with a group of extinct, primate-like mammals called plesiadapiforms. Some scientists say that the number and variety of teeth Purgatorius had makes it a possible common ancestor to primates and plesiadapiforms. Last week, paleontologists from Yale University announced they found the first known Purgatorius ankle bones. The researchers say the fossils reveal the animal had flexible feet like modern tree-living mammals do, implying the earliest primates were indeed arboreal animals as scientists suspected.

Altiatlasius: A few molars and a jaw fragment are all that’s known of this small mammal discovered in Morocco. Many paleontologists consider Altiatlasius, which lived some 57 or 56 million years ago, to be the first true primate. How the ancient primate relates to modern primate lineages is unclear. While some researchers believe it’s similar to a group of primitive tarsier-like primates, others think it might be an ancient forefather of monkeys and apes.

Teilhardina: Named for the French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Teilhardina has been found at North American and Asian sites dating to almost 56 million years ago. Scientists group the genus with the omomyids, a family of tarsier-like primates that emerged during the Eocene epoch some 56 million to 34 million years ago. Last year, scientists reported they had unearthed a cache of Teilhardina fossils in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin that included the first evidence that early primates had nails instead of claws. The tips of the animal’s finger and toe bones were flattened, indicating the presence of fingernails, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Notharctus: This North American genus lived about 50 million years ago and belonged to a family of lemur-like primates called adapiforms. Notharctus had a long tail, leaped from tree to tree and snacked on leaves. A report published in PLOS ONE in January described fossils from this primate that indicate it would have had something like a cross between a fingernail and a claw on its second toe—kind of like modern lemurs, lorises and bush babies (or galagos) that all have a “grooming” claw on their second toe. But it’s not yet clear whether Notharctus was on its way towards evolving a true grooming claw, or on its way towards evolving a true nail.

Eosimias: Discovered in China, Eosimias lived about 45 million years ago. The size and shape of its teeth suggest it was the earliest ancestor of the lineage leading to monkeys and apes (and us!). Fossils of its feet suggest Eosimias walked on all fours like a modern monkey.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.