Early apes in Turkana

We have finally entered our last module on Paleoanthropology and is one of the main reason most field school students have come to the Turkana Basin Institute Field School to learn … Human Evolution! With extensive fossil deposits, the Turkana Basin is one of the most (if not #1) important regions for human prehistory. This module, our instructor is Dr. Matthew Skinner from the University of Kent.

T study began with an introduction to skeletal anatomy and examining the difference between primates and non-primates and where us humans fit in. Living primates are classified into two suborders, Stepsirhines (e.g. Lemurs) and Haplorhines. One easy way to see this division is Stepsirhines lack a postorbital closure where you can see right through the eye socket. You can see this in the right skull cast in the image below.

Haplorhine is on the left and Strepsirhine in on the right.

Haplorhine is on the left and Strepsirhine in on the right.

Within Haplorhines, they are divided into Platyrrhines (New World Monkeys) and Catarrhines (Old World Monkeys/apes). Furthermore, Catarrhines are divided into Cercopithecoids (Old World Monkeys) and Hominoids (apes, humans, etc.). Below is a cladogram that shows the derived characteristics from Stepsirhines to Hominoids.

obtained from Dr. Skinner's lecture notes

obtained from Dr. Skinner’s lecture notes

When and how did a primate become a human? This question will be answered through this module but first, we examined the fossil record of primate evolution and some fossils of each. Approximately 65 million years ago, the earliest primate-like mammals (Plesiadapiformes) appear in the fossil record. Next, the first true primates occur during the Eocene about 55 million years ago. About 38 million years ago during the Oligocene, fossils of the early Catarrhines appear. Finally, during the Miocene approximately 23 million years ago, monkeys and apes appear. During the Miocene (23 – 5 million years ago), various types of hominoids began to appear and evolve through that time and are shown in the diagram below.

obtained from Dr. Skinner's lecture notes

obtained from Dr. Skinner’s lecture notes

Below are a few pictures from students’ lab on skeletal anatomy and examining differences between primates and non-primates.

A few casts of primates, including hominoids and hominids (discussed more in the next class).

A few casts of primates, including hominoids and hominids (discussed more in the next class).

Dr. Matthew Skinner explains the type of hand bones to Page and Aileen.

Dr. Matthew Skinner explains the type of hand bones to Page and Aileen.

Aileen and Page examines the location of each bone in a human hand.

Aileen and Page examines the location of each bone in a human hand.

The Turkana Basin is not only a great region where early hominid fossils have been found, it is also a location that has uncovered early apes. How is this possible on such an arid landscape? This was not the case millions of years ago. As we have learned in geology, the landscape and climate was much different than today with much more vegetation and trees.  Several species of hominoids have been found and continue to be uncovered in  Oligocene to Miocene deposits throughout the Turkana Basin. Below are pictures from our adventures to Oligocene to Early Miocene deposits within the Lothidok Range. In just this area, Leakey family’s fossil hunting team had found Kamoyapithecus hamiltonia, Turkanapithecus kalakolensis, Afropithecus turkanensis, and Simiolus enjiessi! Unfortunately on our outing, we did not find any primate fossils. 🙁

Kalodir & Mururot 

Fossil hunter, John Ekusi, describes the excavation that he was involved in that uncovered a Miocene ape.

Fossil hunter, John Ekusi, describes the excavation that he was involved in that uncovered a Miocene ape.

Dr. Skinner examines a fossil fragment that Anna had found.

Dr. Skinner examines a fossil fragment that Anna had found.

Jayde finds a hand bone but unfortunately, it does not belong to a hominoid.

Jayde finds a hand bone but unfortunately, it does not belong to a hominoid.

Page poses with her fossil find.

Page poses with her fossil find.

Kate finds a fossil but would rather be looking at the nearby rock outcrop.

Kate finds a fossil but would rather be looking at the nearby rock outcrop.

Mike with an unknown fossil fragment.

Mike with an unknown fossil fragment.

Larisa, Sam, and Jayde

Larisa, Sam, and Jayde

Larisa and Rachel pose with there horn core discovery

Larisa and Rachel pose with there horn core discovery

Mike decides to get a view from the top

Mike decides to get a view from the top

Best buddies- Sam and Dylan

Best buddies- Sam and Dylan

Aileen finds a land snail fossil while Anna photobombs

Aileen finds a land snail fossil while Anna photobombs

While looking under the ledge of rocks, I found a tooth. Not sure what it is but I left it alone and took a GPS point for a paleontologist to check at a later time.

While looking under the ledge of rocks, I found a tooth. Not sure what it is but I left it alone and took a GPS point for a paleontologist to check at a later time.

Group picture!

Group picture!

Napedet – Searching for Middle Miocene hominoids

John Ekusi shows the field school the Middle Miocene excavation site that is being studied by Dr. Isaiah Nengo.

John Ekusi shows the field school students the Middle Miocene excavation site that is still being studied by Dr. Isaiah Nengo‘s team.

Mike looks for fossils

Mike looks for fossils

Larisa and Jayde pose with a petrified wood stump

Larisa and Jayde pose with a petrified wood stump

Kate picks up a chunk of petrified wood. This environment was quite different from today.

Kate picks up a chunk of petrified wood. This environment was quite different from the present.

One of the few fossils fragments we could find in this area.

One of the few fossils fragments we could find in this area.

By | 2017-01-04T18:04:47+00:00 March 21st, 2015|Field School, Spring Field School 2015|Comments Off on Early apes in Turkana

About the Author:

Hi I'm Linda. I'm the Resident Academic Director for the Origins Field School. In addition, I'm a geologist. I have been working in the Turkana Basin since 2011 and am interested in reconstructing the past landscape on which our ancestors evolved.