Prehistoric Primate Pictures and Profiles

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Meet the Primates of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras

plesiadapis
Plesiadapis. Alexey Katz

The first ancestral primates appeared on earth at around the same time the dinosaurs went extinct--and these big-brained mammals diversified, over the next 65 million years, into monkeys, lemurs, great apes, hominids and human beings. On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of over 30 different prehistoric primates, ranging from Afropithecus to Smilodectes.

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Afropithecus

afropithecus
The skull of Afropithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Though famous, Afropithecus isn't as well attested as other ancestral hominids; we know from its scattered teeth that it fed on tough fruits and seeds, and it seems to have walked like a monkey (on four feet) rather than like an ape (on two feet). See an in-depth profile of Afropithecus

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Archaeoindris

archaeoindris
Archaeoindris. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Archaeoindris (Greek for "ancient indri," after a living lemur of Madagascar); pronounced ARK-ay-oh-INN-driss

Habitat:

Woodlands of Magadascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-2,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet tall and 400-500 pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; longer front than hind limbs

 

Removed as it was from the mainstream of African evolution, the island of Madagascar witnessed some strange megafauna mammals during the Pleistocene epoch. A good example is the prehistoric primate Archaeoindris, a gorilla-sized lemur (named after the modern indri of Madagascar) that behaved a lot like an overgrown sloth, and is in fact often referred to as the "sloth lemur." Judging by its stocky build and long front limbs, Archaeoindris spent most of its time slowly climbing trees and nibbling on vegetation, and its 500-pound bulk would have made it relatively immune from predation (at least as long as it stayed off the ground).

 

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Archaeolemur

archaeolemur
Archaeolemur. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Archaeolemur (Greek for "ancient lemur"); pronounced ARK-ay-oh-lee-more

Habitat:

Plains of Madagascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-1,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 25-30 pounds

Diet:

Plants, seeds and fruits

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long tail; wide trunk; prominent incisors

 

Archaeolemur was the last of Madagascar's "monkey lemurs" to go extinct, succumbing to environmental change (and the encroachment of human settlers) only about a thousand years ago--a few hundred years after its closest relative, Hadropithecus. Like Hadropithecus, Archaeolemur seems to have been built primarily for plains living, with large incisors capable of cracking open the tough seeds and nuts it found on the open grasslands. Paleontologists have unearthed numerous Archaeolemur specimens, a sign that this prehistoric primate was particularly well-adapted to its island ecosystem.

 

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Archicebus

archicebus
Archicebus. Xijun Ni

Name:

Archicebus (Greek for "ancient monkey"); pronounced ARK-ih-SEE-bus

Habitat:

Woodlands of Asia

Historical Epoch:

Early Eocene (55 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

A few inches long and a few ounces

Diet:

Insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Minuscule size; large eyes

 

For decades, evolutionary biologists have known that the earliest primates were small, mouse-like mammals that scurried across the high branches of trees (the better to avoid the larger mammalian megafauna of the early Cenozoic era). Now, a team of paleontologists has identified what appears to be the earliest true primate in the fossil record: Archicebus, a tiny, big-eyed bundle of fur that lived in the wilds of Asia about 55 million years ago, only 10 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.

Archicebus' anatomy bears an uncanny resemblance to that of modern tarsiers, a distinctive family of primates that are now restricted to the jungles of southeast Asia. But Archicebus was so ancient that it may very well have been the progenitor species for every primate family alive today, including apes, monkeys and human beings. (Some paleontologists point to an even earlier candidate, Purgatorius, an equally small mammal that lived at the very end of the Cretaceous period, but the evidence for this is fuzzy at best.)

What does the discovery of Archicebus mean for Darwinius, a widely touted primate ancestor that generated headlines a few years back? Well, Darwinius lived eight million years later than Archicebus, and it was much bigger (about two feet long and a few pounds). More tellingly, Darwinius appears to have been an "adapid" primate, making it a distant relative of modern lemurs and lorises. Since Archicebus was smaller, and preceded this multivariate branching of the primate family tree, it clearly now has priority as the great-great-etc. grandfather of all primates on earth today.

 

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Ardipithecus

ardipithecus
Ardipithecus. Arturo Ascensio

The fact that male and female Ardipithecus had the same-sized teeth has been taken by some paleontologists as evidence of a relatively placid, aggression-free, cooperative existence, though this theory isn't universally accepted. See an in-depth profile of Ardipithecus

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Australopithecus

australopithecus
Australopithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Despite its presumed intelligence, the human ancestor Australopithecus occupied a place fairly far down on the Pliocene food chain, with numerous individuals succumbing to attacks by carnivorous mammals. See an in-depth profile of Australopithecus

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Babakotia

babakotia
Babakotia. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Babakotia (after a Malagasy name for a living lemur); pronounced BAH-bah-COE-tee-ah

Habitat:

Woodlands of Madagascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-2,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About four feet long and 40 pounds

Diet:

Leaves, fruits and seeds

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Moderate size; long forearms; robust skull

 

The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar was a hotbed of primate evolution during the Pleistocene epoch, with various genera and species carving out hunks of territory and coexisting relatively peacefully. Like its larger relatives Archaeoindris and Palaeopropithecus, Babakotia was a specialized type of primate known as a "sloth lemur," a ponderous, long-legged, sloth-like primate that made its living high up in trees, where it subsisted on leaves, fruits and seeds. No one knows exactly when Babakotia went extinct, but it seems (no surprise) to have been around the time the first human settlers arrived on Madagascar, between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.

 

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Branisella

branisella
Branisella. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Branisella (after paleontologist Leonardo Branisa); pronounced bran-ih-SELL-ah

Habitat:

Woodlands of South America

Historical Epoch:

Middle Oligocene (30-25 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About a foot and a half long and a few pounds

Diet:

Fruits and seeds

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; large eyes; prehensile tail

 

Paleontologists speculate that "new world" monkeys--that is, primates indigenous to central and South America--somehow floated over from Africa, the hotbed of primate evolution, 40 million years ago, perhaps on thatches of tangled vegetation and driftwood. To date, Branisella is the oldest new world monkey yet identified, a tiny, sharp-toothed, tarsier-like primate that probably had a prehensile tail (an adaptation that somehow never evolved in primates from the old world, i.e., Africa and Eurasia). Today, the new world primates that count Branisella as a possible ancestor include marmosets, spider monkeys and howler monkeys.

 

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Darwinius

darwinius
Darwinius. Wikimedia Commons

Although the well-preserved fossil of Darwinius was unearthed in 1983, it wasn't until recently that an enterprising team of researchers got around to examining this ancestral primate in detail--and announcing their findings by way of a TV special. See an in-depth profile of Darwinius

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Dryopithecus

dryopithecus
Dryopithecus. Getty Images

The human ancestor Dryopithecus probably spent most of its time high up in trees, subsisting on fruit--a diet we can infer from its relatively weak cheek teeth, which couldn't have handled tougher vegetation (much less meat). See an in-depth profile of Dryopithecus

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Eosimias

eosimias
Eosimias. Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Name:

Eosimias (Greek for "dawn monkey"); pronounced EE-oh-SIM-ee-us

Habitat:

Woodlands of Asia

Historical Epoch:

Middle Eocene (45-40 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

A few inches long and one ounce

Diet:

Insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Tiny size; simian teeth

 

Most of the mammals that evolved after the age of dinosaurs are known for their enormous sizes, but not so Eosimias, a tiny, Eocene primate that could easily fit in the palm of a child's hand. Judging by its scattered (and incomplete) remains, paleontologists have identified three species of Eosimias, all of which probably led a nocturnal, solitary existence high up in the branches of trees (where they would be beyond the reach of bigger, land-dwelling carnivorous mammals, though still presumably subject to harassment by prehistoric birds). The discovery of these "dawn monkeys" in Asia has led some experts to speculate that the human evolutionary tree had its roots in the prehistoric primates of the far east rather than Africa, though few people are convinced.

 

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Ganlea

ganlea
Ganlea. Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Ganlea has been somewhat oversold by the popular media: this tiny tree dweller has been touted as evidence that anthropoids (the family of primates that embraces monkeys, apes and humans) originated in Asia rather than Africa. See an in-depth profile of Ganlea

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Gigantopithecus

gigantopithecus
Gigantopithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Practically everything we know about Gigantopithecus derives from this African hominid's fossilized teeth and jaws, which were sold in Chinese apothecary shops in the first half of the 20th century. See an in-depth profile of Gigantopithecus

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Hadropithecus

hadropithecus
Hadropithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Hadropithecus (Greek for "stout ape"); pronounced HAY-dro-pith-ECK-us

Habitat:

Plains of Madagascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-2,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet long and 75 pounds

Diet:

Plants and seeds

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Muscular body; short arms and legs; blunt snout

 

During the Pleistocene epoch, the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar was a hotbed of primate evolution--specifically, the lithe, big-eyed lemurs. Also known as the "monkey lemur," Hadropithecus seems to have spent most of its time on the open plains rather than high up in trees, as evidenced by the shape of its teeth (which were well-suited for the tough seeds and plants of the Madagascar grasslands, rather than soft, easily plucked fruits). Despite the familiar "pithecus" (Greek for "ape") in its name, Hadropithecus was very far on the evolutionary tree from famous hominids (i.e., direct human ancestors) like Australopithecus; its closest relative was its fellow "monkey lemur" Archaeolemur.

 

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Megaladapis

megaladapis
Megaladapis. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Megaladapis (Greek for "giant lemur"); pronounced MEG-ah-la-DAP-iss

Habitat:

Woodlands of Madagascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet long and 100 pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; blunt head with powerful jaws

 

One normally thinks of lemurs as shy, gangly, big-eyed denizens of tropical rain forests. However, the exception to the rule was the prehistoric primate Megaladapis, which like most megafauna of the Pleistocene epoch was significantly bigger than its modern lemur descendants (over 100 pounds, by most estimates), with a robust, blunt, distinctly un-lemur-like skull and relatively short limbs. As with most large mammals that survived into historical times, Megaladapis probably met its end from early human settlers on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar--and there's some speculation that this giant lemur may have given rise to legends of large, vaguely human-like beasts on the island, similar to the North American "Bigfoot."

 

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Mesopithecus

mesopithecus
Mesopithecus. Public Domain

Name:

Mesopithecus (Greek for "middle monkey"); pronounced MAY-so-pith-ECK-uss

Habitat:

Plains and woodlands of Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene (7-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 16 inches long and five pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; long, muscular arms and legs

 

A typical "Old World" (i.e., Eurasian) monkey of the late Miocene epoch, Mesopithecus looked uncannily like a modern macaque, with its petite size, slim build and long, muscular arms and legs (which were useful both for foraging on open plains and climbing tall trees in a hurry). Unlike many other pint-sized prehistoric primates, Mesopithecus seems to have foraged for leaves and fruits during the day rather than at night, a sign that it may have lived in a relatively predator-free environment.

 

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Necrolemur

necrolemur
Necrolemur. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Necrolemur (Greek for "grave lemur"); pronounced NECK-roe-lee-more

Habitat:

Woodlands of western Europe

Historical Epoch:

Middle-Late Eocene (45-35 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About one foot long and a few pounds

Diet:

Insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; large eyes; long, grasping fingers

 

One of the most strikingly named of all prehistoric primates--in fact, it sounds a bit like a comic-book villain--Necrolemur is the oldest tarsier ancestor yet identified, prowling the woodlands of western Europe as far back as 45 million years ago, during the Eocene epoch. Like modern tarsiers, Necrolemur had large, round, spooky eyes, the better to hunt at night; sharp teeth, ideal for cracking the carapaces of prehistoric beetles; and last but not least, long, slim fingers that it used both to climb trees and to snag its wriggling insect meals.

 

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Notharctus

notharctus
Notharctus. American Museum of Natural History

The late Eocene Notharctus possessed a relatively flat face with forward-facing eyes, hands flexible enough to grab onto branches, a long, sinuous backbone, and a bigger brain, proportionate to its size, than any previous primate. See an in-depth profile of Notharctus

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Oreopithecus

oreopithecus
Oreopithecus. Wikimedia Commons

The name Oreopithecus has nothing to do with the famous cookie; "oreo" is the Greek root for "mountain" or "hill," where this ancestral primate of Miocene Europe is believed to have lived. See an in-depth profile of Oreopithecus

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Ouranopithecus

ouranopithecus
Ouranopithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Ouranopithecus was a robust hominid; males of this genus may have weighed as much as 200 pounds, and had more prominent teeth than the females (both sexes pursued a diet of tough fruits, nuts and seeds). See an in-depth profile of Ouranopithecus

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Palaeopropithecus

palaeopropithecus
Palaeopropithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Palaeopropithecus (Greek for "ancient one before the apes"); pronounced PAL-ay-oh-PRO-pith-ECK-us

Habitat:

Woodlands of Madagascar

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-500 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About five feet long and 200 pounds

Diet:

Leaves, fruits and seeds

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; sloth-like build

 

After Babakotia and Archaeoindris, the prehistoric primate Palaeopropithecus was the last of Madagascar's "sloth lemurs" to go extinct, as recently as 500 years ago. True to its name, this plus-sized lemur looked and behaved like a modern tree sloth, lazily climbing trees with its long arms and legs, hanging from branches upside-down, and feeding on leaves, fruits and seeds (the resemblance to modern sloths wasn't genetic, but a result of convergent evolution). Because Palaeopropithecus survived into historical times, it has been immortalized in the folk traditions of some Malagasy tribes as the mythical beast called the "tratratratra."

 

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Paranthropus

paranthropus
Paranthropus. Wikimedia Commons

The most noteworthy feature of Paranthropus was this hominid's large, heavily muscled head, a clue that it fed mostly on tough plants and tubers (paleontologists have informally described this human ancestor as "Nutcracker Man"). See an in-depth profile of Paranthropus

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Pierolapithecus

pierolapithecus
Pierolapithecus. BBC

Pierolapithecus combined some distinctly ape-like features (mostly having to do with the structure of this primate's wrists and thorax) with some monkey-like characteristics, including its sloped face and short fingers and toes. See an in-depth profile of Pierolapithecus

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Plesiadapis

plesiadapis
Plesiadapis. Alexey Katz

The ancestral primate Plesiadapis lived during the early Paleocene epoch, a mere five million years or so after the dinosaurs went extinct--which does much to explain its rather small size and retiring disposition. See an in-depth profile of Plesiadapis

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Pliopithecus

pliopithecus
The lower jaw of Pliopithecus. Wikimedia Commons

Pliopithecus was once thought to be directly ancestral to modern gibbons, and hence one of the earliest true apes, but the discovery of the even earlier Propliopithecus ("before Pliopithecus") has rendered that theory moot. See an in-depth profile of Pliopithecus

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Proconsul

proconsul
Proconsul. University of Zurich

When its remains were first discovered, back in 1909, Proconsul was not only the oldest prehistoric ape yet identified, but the first prehistoric mammal ever to be unearthed in sub-Saharan Africa. See an in-depth profile of Proconsul

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Propliopithecus

propliopithecus
Propliopithecus. Getty Images

The Oligocene primate Propliopithecus occupied a place on the evolutionary tree very near the ancient split between "old world" (i.e., African and Eurasian) apes and monkeys, and may well have been the earliest true ape. See an in-depth profile of Propliopithecus

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Purgatorius

purgatorius
Purgatorius. Nobu Tamura

What set Purgatorius apart from other Mesozoic mammals was its distinctly primate-like teeth, which has led to speculation that this tiny creature may have been directly ancestral to modern-day chimps, rhesus monkeys and humans. See an in-depth profile of Purgatorius

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Saadanius

saadanius
Saadanius. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Saadanius (Arabic for "monkey" or "ape"); pronounced sah-DAH-nee-us

Habitat:

Woodlands of central Asia

Historical Epoch:

Middle Oligocene (29-28 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 25 pounds

Diet:

Probably herbivorous

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long face; small canines; lack of sinuses in skull

 

Despite the close relationship of prehistoric monkeys and apes to modern humans, there's still a lot we don't know about primate evolution. Saadanius, a single specimen of which was discovered in 2009 in Saudi Arabia, may help to remedy that situation: long story short, this late Oligocene primate may have been the last common ancestor (or "concestor") of two important lineages, the old world monkeys and the old world apes (the phrase "old world" refers to Africa and Eurasia, whereas North and South America count as the "new world"). A good question, of course, is how a primate living on the Arabian peninsula could have spawned these two mighty families of largely African monkeys and apes, but it's possible that these primates evolved from a population of Saadanius living closer to the birthplace of modern humans.

 

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Sivapithecus

sivapithecus
Sivapithecus. Getty Images

The late Miocene primate Sivapithecus possessed chimpanzee-like feet equipped with flexible ankles, but otherwise it resembled an orangutan, to which it may have been directly ancestral. See an in-depth profile of Sivapithecus

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Smilodectes

smilodectes
Smilodectes. National Museum of Natural History

Name:

Smilodectes; pronounced SMILE-oh-DECK-teez

Habitat:

Woodlands of North America

Historical Epoch:

Early Eocene (55 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About two feet long and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, slender build; short snout

 

A close relative of the better-known Notharctus and the briefly famous Darwinius, Smilodectes was one of a handful of extremely primitive primates that inhabited North America toward the start of the Eocene epoch, about 55 million years ago, only ten million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. Befitting its presumed place at the root of lemur evolution, Smilodectes spent most of its time high up in the branches of trees, nibbling on leaves; despite its primate lineage, though, it doesn't appear to have been a particularly brainy creature for its time and place.

 

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Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Primate Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/prehistoric-primate-pictures-and-profiles-4043334. Strauss, Bob. (2017, March 3). Prehistoric Primate Pictures and Profiles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-primate-pictures-and-profiles-4043334 Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Primate Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-primate-pictures-and-profiles-4043334 (accessed January 17, 2018).