Rethinking Primate Origins, and a Visit to the HMNH

I’ve been trying to get out as much as I can while I’m in Boston since I’m only going to be here until the end of July. Today was pretty hot outside, so instead of straying too far from the nest I decided to keep things close and took a ten minute walk down to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, I also had a chance to get a meeting with Matt Cartmill.

Last week I emailed Cartmill, who is something of an idol in my mind, out of the blue asking if I might be able to drop in for a meeting. We arranged to meet last Friday at his office at Boston University and we talked for a couple of hours.

For anyone who doesn’t know who Matt Cartmill is, in 1974 he wrote a paper for Science titled, “Rethinking Primate Origins.” In the paper, Cartmill proposed an alternative theory for the origins of the Primate Order. Prior to his paper, the general view was that primates had evolved as a form of mammal specially adapted for a life in the trees. This theory, which was popularized by an eclectic naturalist named Frederic Wood Jones, had long been the general consensus in anthropology.

Cartmill used data from recent fossil finds to bolster his theory that early primates were predators.¹

Cartmill thought otherwise and proposed the “Visual Predation Hypothesis” for primate origins. This new theory was based on several lines of evidence. The first was the obvious one that other arboreal mammals, such as squirrels, did not possess the same traits as primates. Notably, these traits included the replacement of claws with nails, a set of forward facing eyes, and opposable thumbs. Cartmill’s new theory, combined with the recent revelation that tree shrews were not primates (this was commonly thought until Robert Martin debunked it in 1966²), was that instead of being adapted only for life in the trees, primates were also adapted to eat bugs and other proteins.

Cartmill’s theory is still among the most widely accepted of these views, and his name is known to pretty much any student of biological anthropology. In addition to being a good anthropologist, he is an expert comparative anatomist. During our time while talking, I shared with him some ideas I have about certain primate traits and it seemed his constant emphasis was to look somewhere other than primates for the answers. At one point during our conversation he pulled a large fossil cast down from his shelf and quizzed me on it. I’m not an anatomist by any means, so this was pretty terrifying, but it seemed he was happy enough that I could guess what order it belonged to (it was a carnivore of some sort). Unfortunately I didn’t bring anything for him to sign and he told me he was heading out of town the next day, but he told me to drop in again when he gets back.

I also took a trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I’ve been here for three weeks now and haven’t been to any of the museums, so I took a walk over. The museum itself is pretty modest sized and is free for people with a Harvard ID. You also get free entry into the Peabody Museum of Anthropology with your entry pass. I don’t have much to say, but I’ve taken some pictures highlighting some of their exhibits and have included captions.

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¹Cartmill, M. (1974). “Rethinking primate origins.” Science 184(4135): 436-443.
²Martin, R. D. (1968). Reproduction and Ontogeny in tree‐shrews (Tupaia belangeri), with reference to their general behaviour and taxonomic relationships 1. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 25(4), 409-495.
You can also follow Dr. Martin on Twitter @DrRDMartin

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