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About the Author
Chris Beard is Curator and Head, Section of Vertebrate Paleontology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant.
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The Hunt for the Dawn MonkeyUNEARTHING THE ORIGINS OF MONKEYS, APES, AND HUMANS
By CHRIS BEARD
The University of California PressISBN: 0-520-23369-7
Chapter OneMissing Links and Dawn Monkeys
In rural China, the highest compliment you can get is not that you're attractive or smart. It's that you work really hard. As I shift to stay in the scant midday shade offered by a deep ravine on the northern bank of the Yellow River, this proletarian attitude makes a lot of sense. When I left the United States earlier this month, spring had barely begun. Checking the calendar in my field notebook, I see that it's only mid May-too early in the season for a heat wave. Yet for the past few days, my team has endured triple digit temperatures. Each of us sports a tan several shades deeper than our normal hue. A few yards away, where he chips at a piece of freshwater limestone that just might contain a fossil, my colleague Wang Jingwen is beginning to live up to his nickname, which translates roughly as "black donkey." I'm told that the local villagers have been praising our work ethic, because when it gets this hot, even the peasants take a siesta under a shade tree.
We have no choice but to tolerate the heat of the noon sun, because it provides the best lighting conditions for finding fossils. At this time of day, there are no shadows to hide the small jaws and limb bones that have been entombed in these rock strata for the past forty thousand millennia orso. Having traversed twelve time zones to get here, I'm not about to forgo the chance to find an important specimen merely because of the oppressive heat. My persistence is rewarded when I split apart another block of greenish-gray limestone. Inside I find a nearly complete maxilla, or upper jaw, of a small rodent, replete with three black teeth that glisten like fresh obsidian in the sunlight. Peering through a hand lens that I keep tied to a leather thong draped like a necklace under my tee shirt, the diagnostic pattern of cusps and crests on the fossilized teeth readily identifies the creature as Pappocricetodon schaubi. A primitive progenitor of modern mice, rats, and gerbils, Pappocricetodon is the most abundant fossil mammal known from this site. Though it's not exactly the pivotal discovery I had hoped for, finding the mortal remains of any animal that lived millions of years ago invigorates the mind. I begin to contemplate the weighty scientific issues that have led me to travel halfway around the world, to this remote part of central China's Shanxi Province.
My particular area of scientific expertise, vertebrate paleontology, is in the midst of a sea change. Much of what I learned as a graduate student is being challenged by provocative new fossils and new methods of interpreting them, if not discarded altogether. Increasing globalization and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states have opened up most of the world to paleontological exploration, including places that, only a few years earlier, I never dreamed of being able to visit in search of fossils. On a separate front, molecular biologists are sequencing the DNA of various organisms at an increasingly frenetic pace, churning out megabytes of raw data that are being used to test old ideas, and to propose new ones, about the evolutionary relationships of living plants and animals. All in all, it feels like a unique moment in history and a great time to be a paleontologist, especially when you're involved in one of the most exciting debates to hit the field of paleoanthropology in many years.
Paleoanthropology is the scientific study of human origins. In the strictest sense, paleoanthropologists seek to illuminate the evolutionary history of the human lineage as it evolved from our more apelike ancestors. Fossil hominids are the crown jewels of paleoanthropology. Without them, theories about when, where, and how our species evolved would be helter-skelter, unconstrained by hard data. One of the great triumphs of twentieth century science has been the recovery of an amazing diversity of hominid fossils, mainly from eastern and southern Africa, but also from various parts of Eurasia, ranging from France and Spain to China and Indonesia. Discoveries of new fossil hominids continue unabated. Considered as a whole, the fossil record of early humans is now complete enough that, at least in broad strokes, we know how humans evolved from more apelike precursors. Virtually all paleoanthropologists agree, for example, that the human lineage originated sometime between five and seven million years ago in Africa, and that early humans acquired the ability to walk upright on two legs millions of years before their brains enlarged much beyond those of chimpanzees.
A fuller consideration of human origins requires us to place our own evolutionary history within a broader context. Did humans take longer to evolve our unique characteristics than other living primates, or did our ancestors simply experience unusually high rates of evolution? For that matter, how unique are humans with respect to other primates anyway? Which seemingly "human" traits are ours alone, and which are shared with various primate relatives? Where do humans lie on the family tree of all primates, and what does that tree look like? Where do primates lie on the larger family tree of all mammals? Were there particularly critical events during the earlier phases of our evolutionary history, before our own lineage branched away from those leading to chimpanzees and other living primates? Today, these questions pose far greater scientific challenges than simply filling in the constantly shrinking gaps in the human fossil record. Yet, ironically, when most people hear the term "missing link," they think of a gap in the fossil record that supposedly fails to link modern humans with our apelike ancestors. The dirty little secret of paleoanthropology is that, while there are plenty of missing links, they don't occur where most people think they do. They exist farther back in deep time. Ultimately, this is why I'm at the bottom of a ravine on the banks of the Yellow River.
The ravine itself is a natural erosional feature, an ephemeral drainage flowing into the Yellow River from the north. It dissects a relatively flat plateau, which-like most rural parts of central China-is now under intensive wheat cultivation. Standing on top of the plateau at the head of the ravine offers a panoramic view of the surrounding terrain. To the south, on the far side of the Yellow River in Henan Province, lie rugged mountains composed primarily of limestone of Ordovician age. Some 450 million years ago-about twice the age of the earliest known dinosaurs-the rock now forming the crest of this range was deposited in a warm, shallow sea not unlike that surrounding the modern Bahamas.
To the north and east, wheat fields extend across the plateau as far as the eye can see. Immediately west of the ravine, the sleepy village of Zhaili shelters the peasant farmers who tend the surrounding fields. A narrow path, hewn into the western wall of the ravine, provides access to the bottom some 150 feet below for the villagers and their sheep and goats. Walking down this path, you can't help but notice the peculiar nature of the nearly vertical walls of the ravine. The rock defining both sides of the ravine is soft and pliable, so easy to work that many people in this part of China actually carve small caves into it, which function as storage rooms or even small homes. Geologically, this type of rock is known as loess. It is composed of wind-blown sediment laid down by countless dust storms that swept across this part of China during the Pleistocene Epoch, when vast ice sheets were expanding and contracting farther north in Siberia.
What is unique about this particular ravine, though, is not the loess. In this part of Shanxi Province, loess is ubiquitous, draping over older geological features like autumn leaves covering a well-kept lawn. But here, as the ravine approaches the Yellow River, it cuts deep into the loess. For the last fifty yards or so of its existence, the ravine finally succeeds in breaking through the loess altogether to expose the much older underlying strata. Even to the untrained eye, it is clear that these rocks are different, both in terms of their composition and their segregation into different layers or beds. They consist of alternating bands of blue-green mudstone, pale yellow and white limestone, and thick gray sandstones, the last of which show internal evidence of stratification in the form of minute swales of sand grains known as cross-bedding. The fossils we seek are concentrated in the layers of mudstone and limestone. They are roughly forty million years old, about six times older than the earliest putative hominids ever discovered. They pertain to an interval of Earth history known as the Eocene, the Greek roots of which translate more or less as "dawn of recent [life]."
As its etymology suggests, the Eocene was a pivotal period in the history of life on Earth-a time of transition from ancient to modern. The earliest members of most living orders of mammals first appeared and became geographically widespread, replacing more archaic forms that left no living descendants. Such distinctive and highly specialized types of modern mammals as bats and whales first showed up in the Eocene, together with the earliest odd-toed ungulates (horses, rhinos, and tapirs), even-toed ungulates (pigs, camels, and primitive relatives of deer and antelopes), and others. The order of mammals to which we belong, the Primates, also first became geographically widespread and ecologically prominent at the beginning of the Eocene, although a few scattered fossils hint that primates are somewhat older yet. At the same time, the Eocene witnessed the decline and extinction of many groups of mammals that first evolved alongside the dinosaurs, or immediately following their demise. Examples include the vaguely rodent like multituberculates, the raccoon- or bear like arctocyonids, and the large herbivores known as pantodonts and uintatheres. The Eocene also witnessed a great evolutionary diversification of flowering plants, together with the insects that feed on them.
In terms of its prevailing climate, the Eocene was virtually a mirror image of the Pleistocene or "Ice Ages," when much of human evolution transpired. It began with a pronounced episode of global warming some fifty-five million years ago. Such optimal conditions allowed tropical and subtropical forests-and the animals that inhabit them-to occur at much higher latitudes than they do today. Because primates have always prospered in these warm forest habitats, the Eocene was truly a heyday for primate evolution. Among their other accomplishments, Eocene primates extended their geographic range far beyond its current limits. Fossils of Eocene primates have been found as far north as Saskatchewan in North America, England and Germany in Europe, and Mongolia in Asia. As I discuss in greater detail in subsequent chapters, the fossil record shows that during the Eocene, even these northern continental regions supported diverse evolutionary radiations of primates. After enduring for more than twenty million years, the greenhouse world of the Eocene ended thirty-four million years ago, when the Earth's climate once again became cooler and drier. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that this severe climatic deterioration witnessed the extinction of primates in North America and Europe, where tropical and subtropical habitats disappeared.
The vast majority of the fossil primates known from the Eocene resemble the most primitive primates alive today. These animals, collectively known as prosimians, include the diverse radiation of lemurs native to Madagascar, the bushbabies of continental Africa, the lorises of Africa and southern Asia, and, perhaps strangest of all, the tarsiers of Southeast Asian islands. Prosimians resemble other primates, including humans, in possessing nails rather than claws on most digits of their hands and feet, and in having eyes that face forward to allow for enhanced, "stereoscopic" vision. Like all primates aside from humans, prosimians have a grasping big toe, functionally akin to the human thumb. Yet prosimians also differ from humans and our nearest primate relatives, the monkeys and apes, in many aspects of their anatomy, physiology, and behavior.
Monkeys, apes, and humans are collectively known as anthropoids or "higher primates." Compared to prosimians, living anthropoids possess larger brains, eye sockets that are almost completely surrounded by bone, a single lower jaw bone (or mandible) formed by the fusion of two separate bones at the chin, and many other anatomically advanced features. In terms of their behavior, anthropoids again differ from most prosimians, although there is some overlap between species of each group. In general, anthropoids tend to live in complex groups characterized by intricate social interactions among individual members. Some prosimian species, in contrast, live quite solitary lives. All anthropoids aside from the South American owl monkey (Aotus) are diurnal-that is, they are mainly active during daytime. Many prosimians, notably tarsiers, bush-babies, lorises, and some lemurs, strongly prefer to move about and feed at night. These profound differences between prosimians and anthropoids extend to the molecular level. Analyses of long sequences of the DNA of various species of monkeys, apes and humans show that all of these species are far more similar to one another than any of them are to prosimians. In an evolutionary context, this means that, whether we analyze anatomy, behavior, or DNA, the conclusion remains inescapable. We humans are much more closely related to monkeys and apes than we are to lemurs or tarsiers. Put slightly differently, monkeys share a more recent common ancestor with us than they do with prosimians.
Despite unanimous scientific agreement that humans share a close common ancestry with monkeys and apes, one of the most controversial issues in paleoanthropology today is how, when, and where the first anthropoids-the common ancestors of monkeys, apes, and people-evolved. In stark contrast to the relatively abundant fossil record for early humans, the fossil record for anthropoid origins is spotty, incomplete, and seemingly incoherent. Paleontology, like other branches of science, abhors such a vacuum. The main purpose of our expedition is to help flesh out this distant phase of our evolutionary history. Yet the simple fact that our team is searching for fossils of early anthropoid primates in Eocene rocks in central China is, in several respects, unorthodox-if not downright heretical.
Our goal is to test a bold new hypothesis about anthropoid origins-one that moves the birthplace of these remote human ancestors from Africa to Asia while it ruptures the established evolutionary timetable by tens of millions of years.
Excerpted from The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey by CHRIS BEARD Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One. Missing Links and Dawn Monkeys
Chapter Two. Toward Egypt’s Sacred Bull
Chapter Three. A Gem from the Willwood
Chapter Four. The Forest in the Sahara
Chapter Five. Received Wisdom
Chapter Six. The Birth of a Ghost Lineage
Initial Hints from Deep Time
Chapter Eight. Ghost Busters
Chapter Nine. Resurrecting the Ghost
Into the African Melting Pot
Chapter Eleven. Paleoanthropology and Pithecophobia
What People are Saying About This
"Demonstrates that there is still much to be discovered about primate origins and evolution."Reviews
"Interested readers who want to become better informed about early primate evolution should turn to K. C. Beard's The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey, an accessible, authoritative alternative."Science (Aaas)