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Tiny, Ancient Tree-Dweller in China is Oldest Found Primate

Update Date: Jun 06, 2013 02:21 PM EDT

The fossil remains of the 55 million-years-old monkey-like creature, the oldest primate yet found has been discovered in central China, reported the BBC.

The mouse-sized creatures were, according to scientists, wide-eyed, hyperactive, and weighed an ounce or less. Scientists have named them Archicebus achilles ("ancient monkey").

Although these tiny little devils weren't our direct ancestors, they certainly provide a better understanding of the complex evolution that eventually led to us, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

According to Christopher Beard, curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and author of the study, the life period of these creatures dates so far back on the primate's family tree it offers the best clues yet of what our earliest direct relatives would have been like at that time.

"It's a close cousin in fact," said Beard. "The closest thing we have to an ancestor of humans so long ago."

Primates are mammals of the order of life which humans, apes, monkeys, and lemurs are members of. They are divided in two main suborders: prosimians and simians.

Prosimians have characteristics more like those of the earliest primates, and include the lemurs of Madagascar, lorisoids, and tarsiers. Simians include monkeys, apes and humans.Archicebus belong to the same grouping as tarsiers, but close to the offshoot branch in the family tree where humans come from. The fossil includes simians-like features.

That suggests that the first of these creatures were, likewise, petite forms scurrying through the tropical canopies that grew to cover the Earth shortly after the dinosaurs' extinction.

"We are all very curious about the ancestors of primates, including those of human beings," said Dr Xijun Ni from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China.

"From this almost complete skeleton, we can conclude that our ancestors were a kind of very small animal. It was very active and agile; and it lived in the trees and fed on insects," he continued.

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