Vertebrate Paleontology

Former Curator and Mary R. Dawson Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology K. Christopher Beard

Early Cenozoic Primate Paleontology in China 



Lower dentition of Chronolestes simul from the Wutu Formation, Shandong Province, China. Chronolestes is a basal carpolestid plesiadapoid, demonstrating that these animals dispersed across the Bering land bridge during the early part of the Age of Mammals.


The fossil record demonstrates that during the Eocene Epoch (55–34 million years ago) a wide variety of primates occurred in Europe and North America. Much less is known about the Eocene primates that inhabited the vast Asian landmass, but because of its intermediate geographic location and wide range of paleohabitats, it is safe to conclude that Asian Eocene primates were at least as diverse as those of Europe and North America. Furthermore, because undoubted primates (or primate ancestors) have never been found in Paleocene strata (65–55 million years ago) in Europe and North America, it is possible that the entire order Primates originated in Asia.

Expeditions by Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology (Academia Sinica, Beijing, PRC) have greatly advanced our knowledge of Paleocene and Eocene primate diversity in China. For example, fossilized teeth and other remains of a 45 million-year-old species of the living primate genus Tarsius show that these animals have remained largely unchanged over this long interval of time. We have also discovered the first indisputable evidence that the Eocene primate faunas of Asia interacted with those of Europe and North America (and possibly Africa) through dispersal. Such distinctive primate clades as the loris-like Adapina (also found in western Europe), the omomyid genus Macrotarsius (also known in many western U.S. states), and the plesiadapoid family Carpolestidae (also known from the western U.S. and Canada) have been recovered from early Cenozoic fossil sites in China through our field work.

Further exploration of early Cenozoic basins in China will yield additional insight regarding the biogeographic role of Asia in early primate evolution. We hope to address the issues of primate origins, tarsier phylogeny and biogeography, and the evolutionary history of other Eocene primate clades over the next several years.

Our field and laboratory research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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