Myanmar has been pretty prominent in headlines around the world this past week for two reasons. The first is the recent trip to Thailand made by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi–her first overseas trip in 24 years. The second is the discovery of a small primate fossil that is challenging the idea that, as some pop pundits love to decree, that we all originally hailed from Africa.
This new fossil primate, dubbed Afrasia djijidae—Afrasia from how early anthropoids are now found intercontinentally in both Africa and Asia, djijidae in memory of a young girl from village of Mogaung in central Myanmar, the nation where the remains were found–was discovered by a team of American, Burmese, Thai and French researchers. It has been dated as being approximately 37 million years old.
The Afrasia fossil is similar to the remains of another early anthropoid, Afrotarsius libycus, which was also recently discovered Libya. So what’s the significance of these two distinct set of fossils, one found in Asia and one in Africa? Well, scientists have been unable to find any older relatives of the Afrotarsius, but they have seen fossils at other Asian sites that appear to be related to Afrasia. Some of these even date back 7 or 8 million years older than Afrasia. The close similarity and relative age of the Afrasia and Afrotarsius leads scientists to now believe that early anthropoids migrated to Africa only shortly before the time when these two animals lived. And that these anthropoids migrated from Asia.
So, in laymen’s terms, our earliest ancestors–the ones that we share with the apes and the monkeys–were Asian.
Africa, however, and not Asia, is where these anthropoids evolved into the homo genus (of which you and I are a part of). And that’s because it is believed that all the Asian anthropoids were wiped out. Jean-Jacques Jaeger, a paleontologist at the University of Poitiers in France, has said, “Around 34 million years ago, there was a dramatic glacial event that cooled the world climate and affected Asia more than Africa. During that crisis, we suppose that all primitive Asian anthropoids disappeared.” Nonetheless, without these Asian ancestors, we wouldn’t be around today. Jaeger sums it up quite nicely, “”Africa is the place of origin of man, and Asia is the place of origins of our far ancestors.”
I remember listening to Jeff Yang, still at the time publisher of A. Magazine, speaking at an forum back in the early 1990s. He was lamenting seeing a bunch of Chinese-American kids in Chinatown, New York, dressed like Christopher Reid from Kid ‘n Play and all of them sporting these huge Africa medallions. When he tried speaking to them about their own heritage, we was rebuffed along the lines of “Yo! Step off! We’re all African bro!” The irony of that today is pretty amusing.
Photo: Original portrait taken by R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock. Image has been manipulated.