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Human Ancestor Had a Pea Brain


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Higher primates such as humans are considered the brainiacs of the mammalian world. But a 29-million-year-old fossilized skull suggests that one of our remote ancestors was a bit of a ?pea brain,? sporting a noggin smaller than that of a modern lemur.


The skull belonged to a common ancestor of humans, monkeys and apes.


"This means the big-brained monkeys and apes developed their large brains at a later point in time,? said lead study author Elwyn Simons, a Duke University primatologist.


Until now, scientists had assumed brain size was a key feature that defined higher primates, a category that includes humans, monkeys and apes. The larger brain relative to body size also has provided paleoanthropologists with a physical marker for the evolutionary distinction between higher and lower primates, which include lemurs of Madagascar.


Tiny enough to fit into the palm of your hand, the skull comes from a female Aegyptopithecus zeuxis, which means ?linking Egyptian ape.? This early monkey lived about 33 million years ago, a time when primates were evolving rapidly. The cat-size primate ate fruits and leaves in a tropical rainforest in what is now the Fayum in Egypt.


The discovery, published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the evolution of human-like brains .


?The reason Aegyptopithecus is so important is that it?s at the base of the family tree of the Old World higher primates, the group that we?re in,? Simons told LiveScience. ?So this is telling us something about the chapter in our own ancestry.?


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