Palaeontological evidence for an Oligocene divergence between Old World monkeys and apes


Apes and Old World monkeys are prominent components of modern African and Asian ecosystems, yet the earliest phases of their evolutionary history have remained largely undocumented1. The absence of crown catarrhine fossils older than 20 million years (Myr) has stood in stark contrast to molecular divergence estimates of 25–30 Myr for the split between Cercopithecoidea (Old World monkeys) and Hominoidea (apes), implying long ghost lineages for both clades2,3,4. Here we describe the oldest known fossil ‘ape’, represented by a partial mandible preserving dental features that place it with ‘nyanzapithecine’ stem hominoids. Additionally, we report the oldest stem member of the Old World monkey clade, represented by a lower third molar. Both specimens were recovered from a precisely dated 25.2-Myr-old stratum in the Rukwa Rift, a segment of the western branch of the East African Rift in Tanzania. These finds extend the fossil record of apes and Old World monkeys well into the Oligocene epoch of Africa, suggesting a possible link between diversification of crown catarrhines and changes in the African landscape brought about by previously unrecognized tectonic activity5 in the East African rift system.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Location and stratigraphy of the primate-bearing locality (Nsungwe 2B), in southwestern Tanzania.
Figure 2: Comparison of Nsungwe Formation primates with representative stem and crown catarrhines.
Figure 3: Phylogenetic placement of Rukwapithecus, new genus.


  1. 1

    Jablonski, N. & Frost, S. Cercopithecoidea. In Cenozoic Mammals of Africa (eds Werdelin, L. & Sanders, W. J. ) 393–428 (Univ. California Press, 2010)

  2. 2

    Steiper, M. E. & Young, N. M. Timing primate evolution: Lessons from the discordance between molecular and paleontological estimates. Evol. Anthropol. 17, 179–188 (2008)

  3. 3

    Wilkinson, R. D. et al. Dating primate divergences through an integrated analysis of paleontological and molecular data. Syst. Biol. 60, 16–31 (2011)

  4. 4

    Springer, M. S. et al. Macroevolutionary dynamics and historical biogeography of primate diversification inferred from a species supermatrix. PLoS ONE 7, e49521 (2012)

  5. 5

    Roberts, E. M. et al. Initiation of the western branch of the East African Rift coeval with the eastern branch. Nature Geosci. 5, 289–294 (2012)

  6. 6

    Leakey, M. G., Ungar, P. S. & Walker, A. A new genus of large primate from the Late Oligocene of Lothidok, Turkana District, Kenya. J. Hum. Evol. 28, 519–531 (1995)

  7. 7

    Stevens, N. J. et al. An anthropoid primate humerus from the Rukwa Rift Basin, Paleogene of southwestern Tanzania. J. Vert. Paleontol. 25, 986–989 (2005)

  8. 8

    Zalmout, I. S. et al. New Oligocene primate from Saudi Arabia and the divergence of apes and Old World monkeys. Nature 466, 360–364 (2010)

  9. 9

    Ducrocq, S., Manthi, F. K. & Lihoreau, F. First record of a parapithecid primate from the Oligocene of Kenya. J. Hum. Evol. 61, 327–331 (2011)

  10. 10

    Stevens, N. J. et al. in Elwyn L. Simons: A Search for Origins (eds Fleagle, J. G. & Gilbert, C. C. ) 159–180 (Springer, 2008)

  11. 11

    Roberts, E. M. et al. Sedimentology and depositional environments of the Red Sandstone Group, Rukwa Rift Basin, Tanzania: New insight into Cretaceous and Paleogene terrestrial ecosystems and tectonics in sub-Equatorial Africa. J. Afr. Earth Sci. 57, 179–212 (2010)

  12. 12

    O’Connor, P. M. et al. The evolution of mammal-like crocodyliforms in the Cretaceous of Gondwana. Nature 466, 748–751 (2010)

  13. 13

    Benefit, B. R. The biostratigraphy and paleontology of fossil cercopithecoids from eastern Libya. Geol. East Libya 3, 247–266 (2008)

  14. 14

    Miller, E. R. et al. Systematics of early and middle Miocene Old World monkeys. J. Hum. Evol. 57, 195–211 (2009)

  15. 15

    Harrison, T. Dendropithecoidea, Proconsuloidea and Hominoidea. In Cenozoic Mammals of Africa (eds Werdelin, L. & Sanders, W. J. ) 429–469 (Univ. California Press, 2010)

  16. 16

    Benefit, B. R. Victoriapithecus: The key to Old World monkey and catarrhine origins. Evol. Anthropol. 7, 155–174 (1999)

  17. 17

    Harrison, T. in The Primate Fossil Record (ed. Hartwig, W. C. ) 311–338 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002)

  18. 18

    Fourtau, R. Contribution a l’étude des vertébrés Miocene de l’Égypte (Survey Dept. Min. Finance Govt. Press, 1918)

  19. 19

    Von Koenigswald, G. H. R. in Fossil Vertebrates of Africa (ed. Leakey, L. S. B. ) 39–52 (Academic, 1969)

  20. 20

    Delson, E. Prohylobates (Primates) from the Early Miocene of Libya: A new species and its implications for cercopithecid origins. Geobios 12, 725–733 (1979)

  21. 21

    Benefit, B. R. The permanent dentition and phylogenetic position of Victoriapithecus from Maboko Island, Kenya. J. Hum. Evol. 25, 83–172 (1993)

  22. 22

    Andrews, P. New species of Dryopithecus from Kenya. Nature 249, 188–190 (1974)

  23. 23

    Nengo, I. O. & Rae, T. C. New hominoid fossils from the early Miocene site of Songhor, Kenya. J. Hum. Evol. 23, 423–429 (1992)

  24. 24

    Swofford, D. L. PAUP* Phylogenetic Analysis Using Parsimony (*and Other Methods), Version 4 (Sinauer Associates, 1998)

  25. 25

    Ronquist, F. & Huelsenbeck, J. P. MrBayes 3: Bayesian phylogenetic inference under mixed models. Bioinformatics 19, 1572–1574 (2003)

  26. 26

    Rossie, J. B. & MacLatchy, L. A new pliopithecoid genus from the early Miocene of Uganda. J. Hum. Evol. 50, 568–586 (2006)

  27. 27

    Seiffert, E. R. Early primate evolution in Afro-Arabia. Evol. Anthropol. 21, 239–253 (2012)

  28. 28

    Sepulchre, P. et al. Tectonic uplift and eastern African aridification. Science 313, 1419–1423 (2006)

  29. 29

    Leakey, M., Grossman, A., Gutiérrez, M. & Fleagle, J. G. Faunal change in the Turkana Basin during the late Oligocene and Miocene. Evol. Anthropol. 20, 238–253 (2011)

  30. 30

    Zachos, J. et al. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292, 686–693 (2001)

Download references


We thank D. Kamamba, F. Ndunguru, J. Temba, P. Msemwa, I. Marobhe, E. Mbede and the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology for support; E. Lund for assisting with specimen preparation; S. Egberts, R. Felice, E. Lund, H. O’Brien and J. Sidote for field assistance in 2011 and/or 2012; M. Gottfried for earlier project contributions; H. Fässler, T. Plattner, A. Njao and S. and T. Greenaway for their support; M. Cortese-Hering, M. Dawson, J. Eastman, J. Fleagle, G. Gunnell, J. A. Holman, D. Krause, S. Howard, L. Jolley, D. Miles, L. Robbins, N. Sauer, C. Seiffert, E. Simons and P. Wright for helpful discussions; G. Gunnell, F. Manthi, E. Mbua and M. Muungu for specimen access; E. Delson for Victoriapithecus µCT data; L. Halenar, W. Holloway and S. Maiolino for µCT assistance; J. Sattler for specimen photography; and M. Antón for scientific artwork. D. DeBlieux and V. Simons discovered the Nsungwe 2 locality in 2007; R. Felice co-discovered RRBP 11178. Research was supported by US National Science Foundation (EAR-0617561, EAR/IF-0933619, BCS-1127164), National Geographic Society (CRE), Louis B. Leakey Foundation, Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Ohio University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Author information




N.J.S., P.M.O. and E.M.R. developed the Nsungwe primate project of the RRBP. N.J.S., E.M.R., P.M.O., E.G., T.L.H., C.K., S.N. and J.T. conducted excavations. N.J.S., P.M.O., E.R.S., E.M.R., M.D.S. and C.K. conducted the research. N.J.S., E.R.S., P.M.O., M.D.S. and E.M.R. wrote the manuscript and Supplementary Information.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nancy J. Stevens.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The ZooBank numbers for each taxon are as follow: (Nsungwepithecus gunnelli) and fleaglei).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Tables 1-4, Supplementary Figures 1-11 and Supplementary References – see contents page for details. (PDF 4026 kb)

Reconstruction of Nsungwepithecus gunnelli holotype, mandible fragment bearing left m3. (MOV 11826 kb)

Nsungwepithecus TYPE (RRBP 11178)

Reconstruction of Nsungwepithecus gunnelli holotype, mandible fragment bearing left m3. (MOV 11826 kb)

Reconstruction Rukwapithecus fleaglei holotype, partial right mandible bearing p4, m1, m2, and partially erupted m3. (MOV 4778 kb)

Rukwapithecus TYPE (RRBP 12444A)

Reconstruction Rukwapithecus fleaglei holotype, partial right mandible bearing p4, m1, m2, and partially erupted m3. (MOV 4778 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Stevens, N., Seiffert, E., O’Connor, P. et al. Palaeontological evidence for an Oligocene divergence between Old World monkeys and apes. Nature 497, 611–614 (2013).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.