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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.

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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.

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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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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)

Nsungwepithecus TYPE (RRBP 11178)

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

Rukwapithecus TYPE (RRBP 12444A)

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

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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).

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