Just Old World and New World primates. Characteristics

Just like other organisms, humans have changed over time.

We will look at the evolution of humans as well as connections with our primate relatives, including Old World and New World primates.

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Characteristics of Primates

We humans are a very distinct group of animals. However, there are many characteristics that we share with our primate relatives.

Primates are mammals with:

  • Forward-looking eyes
  • Hands and feet capable of grasping
  • Large brains
  • Complex social behaviors

The forward-looking eyes, rather than having eyes spaced out to have improved peripheral vision, allow for increased depth perception. The complex social behavior varies greatly within primates, but a common feature among all primates is good prenatal care and care for the young. Another similarity is having fingernails rather than claws such as those that other mammals, like cats and bears, have.

All primates also have fingerprints due to small ridges on their fingers.

Evolution of Primates

The earliest primates lived in trees. They used their hands and feet – both capable of grasping – to move between and among trees using the branches and vines. Some also had tails to help maintain balance. A living organism that most closely resembles these early primates is the lemur.

These early primates separated into two groups with distinctively different patterns of evolution. The Old World primates reside in Africa and Asia, while the New World primates reside in South America.

Examples of hominoids
One difference between humans and other primates is that humans have smaller jawbones.
Australopithecus. This hominin lived about two to four million years ago, was bipedal, and had human-like hands and teeth but a small brain. Australopithecus increased the diversity of hominins.

You may be familiar with an example of this human ancestor already. The infamous Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is a prime example of Australopithecus.More recent human ancestors belong to our same genus – Homo – indicating a closer genetic relationship. The first known member of our genus was Homo habilis.

This ancestor lived 1.6-2.4 million years ago and was called ‘handy-man’ because of the evidence of advanced tool use.

There is some overlap as to when Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived.
Homo erectus was the first hominin to move out of Africa and lived 200,000 to 1.8 million years ago. You may have noticed that the time frames between Homo habilis and Homo erectus overlap.

This is because of the dating of the fossils and because there is definitive evidence that several human ancestral species lived at the same time. The evolution of humans isn’t a straight line from one species to the next, but rather it contains several branches and even some dead ends. One example of an evolutionary dead-end is seen in Neanderthals.

These individuals were very similar to humans in both physical and social structure but are genetically different. Neanderthals lived 30,000 to 200,000 years ago but went extinct.

Map showing when humans migrated out of Africa to different regions
Human Migration

Homo sapiens are humans.

The oldest human fossils are 160,000-195,000 years old. Our ancestors originated in Africa and then migrated elsewhere around 50,000 years ago. Scientists have specifically studied mutations on the Y chromosome – which all males have – to trace the migration out of Africa and into other specific areas of the world.

Lesson Summary

Primates are mammals with:

  • Forward-looking eyes
  • Hands and feet that can grasp
  • Large brains
  • Complex social behaviors

We looked at a variety of primates, including Old World and New World primates. Old World primates live in Asia and Africa, while New World primates live in South America. The hominoids evolved from Old World primates and include humans, gibbons, and chimpanzees. Humans are different from other primates in that we:

  • Walk on two feet rather than four
  • Are capable of language and symbolic thought
  • Can make and use complex tools

Humans have an extensive evolutionary history, and scientists have identified more than twenty different human-like ancestors.

We looked at a few specific examples of these ancestors, including:

  • Lucy – an Australopithecus
  • Homo habilis – the first member of our genus Homo
  • Homo erectus – the first human ancestor to move out of Africa
  • Homo sapiens

While humans are unique among animals, remember that they too have a vast evolutionary history.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Describe the characteristics of primates
  • Differentiate between Old World primates and New World primates
  • Explain what characteristics set humans apart from other primates
  • Describe a few different types of extinct hominins
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