Professor Stumbles Into a Significant Fossil Discovery in India

Christopher Gilbert (Photo Credit: Biren Patel)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Professor Christopher Gilbert (GC/Hunter, Anthropology) was taking a break while fossil-hunting in India when he spotted something shiny in the dirt. It turned out to be a tooth, 13 million years old, from a previously undiscovered type of ape.

This new genus and species, eventually named Kapi ramnagarensis, is the earliest known ancestor of the modern-day gibbon. The discovery fills “one of the biggest gaps in the entire primate record,” Gilbert said. “Lesser apes (gibbons and siamangs) are the most numerous of the living apes, and we know that they evolved in Africa around approximately 20 million years ago.” But until the tooth was unearthed, the oldest known fossils of lesser apes were only 7 to 8 million years old.

The discovery also proves that these ancient gibbons migrated from Africa to Asia at around the same time, and through the same places, as great apes, a category that includes orangutans. The fossil record for great apes had previously established their presence in Asia around 13 million years ago, and the tooth that Gilbert found confirms that lesser apes were in Asia by 13 million years ago as well.
 
“This means that there may have been a larger ape dispersal event from Africa to Asia around this time involving both great apes and lesser apes,” he said. “We appear to be catching a window into that event as they pass through South Asia on their way to establishing their recent and current distributions in East and Southeast Asia.”
 
A paper on the discovery appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Gilbert found the small, ancient molar, about a quarter-inch wide, in 2015 at a famous fossil site in Ramnagar, India. It took several years of study to figure out where the species fit into the evolution of hominoids, a category that includes both great apes and lesser (smaller) apes.

Gilbert’s team included Kelsey Pugh, who was a Ph.D. student in The Graduate Center’s’s anthropology program while working on the project. She graduated in January 2020 and is now a postdoctoral associate at the American Museum of Natural History, where Gilbert also holds an appointment.
 
What’s next for Gilbert? “We recently received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to continue our work in India,” he said. “We are anxious to get back to work and go look for more fossils of Kapi and other primates when the pandemic is over!”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: SEP 9, 2020

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