7 Prehistoric Primates You Should Know About

© Concavenator / CC BY-SA 4.0, , via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Janet F. Murray

Updated: July 7, 2023

Share on:


Many billions of years ago, the dinosaurs went extinct. This period is when the first primates appeared. Primates then changed over millions of years into the monkeys and apes we know today. This article explores primates from prehistoric times you should know about, including lemurs and hominids.

1. Afropithecus — The Prehistoric African Ape


Afropithecus lived around 17 million years ago.

©Ghedoghedo / CC BY-SA 3.0, , via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

Afropithecus lived in the jungles of what we know today as Africa. Its name came from Greek, meaning “African Ape.” Afropithecus lived around 17 million years ago. Experts estimate that Afropithecus stood about five feet tall and weighed approximately 100 pounds. It was large and had a long snout with large teeth. Specialists believe this African ape ate fruits and seeds primarily and was chiefly a tree-dwelling creature. Like most other great apes, it most likely walked on all fours instead of two legs. Researchers Richard and Mary Leaky unearthed fossils in 1986 near Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, describing it as a separate species.

2. Archicebus


Archicebus existed around 55 million years ago and likely only weighed 0.7-1 ounces.

©Mat Severson / CC BY-SA 4.0, , via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

Archicebus means “long-tailed monkey” in Greek. This fossil is among the oldest on record, proving this monkey walked the earth approximately 55 million years ago. Some paleontologists believe that the Archicebus belonged to a tarsier group of primates. It was a small tree-dwelling monkey, about the size of a pygmy mouse lemur. However, it probably only weighed about 0.7-1 ounces.

Nearly complete Archicebus fossils were buried in shale in an ancient lake bed in China in 2002. Scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing made this discovery. These fossils were the first nearly complete skeletons that paleontologists found in the area. They were proof that Archicebus had lived in the Asian woodlands. Their features indicated that it had grasping feet and a long prehensile tail. Moreover, paleontologists believe this monkey fed primarily on insects, and its small eye sockets suggest it was most active during the day.

3. Babakotia


It believed Babakotia was an excellent climber and lived very high in the tree canopy.

©Smokeybjb / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

The name Babakotia comes from the Malagasy word for the Indri, Babakoto. Babakotia inhabited the woodlands of Madagascar around two million to 2,000 years ago. Researchers determined that this animal weighed between 30 and 40 pounds and was approximately four feet long. Babakotia and some others are also known as sloth lemurs. Fossils show that this prehistoric monkey had long forearms and large skulls. These physical traits mean that it looked more like sloths than lemurs. Researchers also speculate that the Babakotia behaved more like sloths than lemurs.

Additionally, paleontologists believe the Babakotia was an excellent climber and lived very high in the tree canopy. This behavior made it difficult for predators to catch it. Its diet most probably consisted of leaves, fruits, and seeds. Experts determine that the Babakotia died out due to hunting and habitat loss. This extinction probably occurred shortly after humans arrived in the region known as Madagascar today, approximately 2,000 years ago.

4. Dryopithecus


Unusually, fossils of Dryopithecus have been found in Europe and Aisa.

©DiBgd / CC BY-SA 4.0, , via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

Dryopithecus was a mid-sized ape originally from Africa. The name Dryopithecus comes from Greek and means “Tree Ape.” Primatologists reckon that the Dryopithecus inhabited mainly woodlands and later migrated to Europe and Asia. Fossils show that the Dryopithecus was only about four feet long, making it a mid-sized ape. Experts estimate its weight at around 25 pounds. Dryopithecus had long arms and a chimpanzee-shaped head.

Apparently, this prehistoric ape went extinct about 10 million years ago. Dryopithecus is unusual because experts have also found fossils in Europe and Asia. The fossils found in Europe are fascinating because of the distinct absence of indigenous monkeys on the continent. But, those who study primates believe that Dryopithecus mostly lived in the tree tops and ate fruits. However, how its body is built shows that Dryopithecus could walk on its knuckles like most apes. In addition, it could run on its hind legs, especially when chased by predators.

5. Eosimias


Experts believe the Eosimias was tree-dwelling in order to evade ground-dwelling mammals.

©DiBgd / CC BY-SA 4.0 – Original / License

Eosimias is Greek and means “Dawn Monkey.” This tiny monkey lived in the woodlands of Asia. It was only a few inches long and weighed approximately one ounce. Scientists found fossils of Eosimias mainly in Asia, consisting of jaws, teeth, and foot bones. These researchers believe this prehistoric monkey died out about 40 million years ago.

Additionally, experts believe this little monkey was tree-dwelling and nocturnal. And it probably developed these traits to escape larger ground-dwelling mammals. Unfortunately, not much is known about its diet, as only incomplete parts of fossils have been found.

6. Gigantopithecus – One of the Biggest Prehistoric Monkeys


Gigantopithecus was huge, and stood about nine feet tall and weighed 1,000 pounds.

©Concavenator / CC BY-SA 4.0, , via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The word Gigantopithecus is of Greek origin and means “Giant Ape.” The Gigantopithecus was found in the woodlands of Asia and lived about six million to 200,000 years ago. As its name suggests, the Gigantopithecus was huge. This ape stood about nine feet tall and weighed 1,000 pounds. At least, this is what experts deduce from fossil findings. In the early 20th century, Chinese apothecaries sold pieces of jaws and teeth to the public. This commercial behavior was the first indication that people had discovered a Gigantopithecus fossil. However, the scattered and fractured fossil pieces made it challenging for paleontologists to reconstruct the Gigantopithecus skeletons. Still, researchers believed that this prehistoric monkey was herbivorous and could walk on its hind legs.

7. Megaladapis

Overhunting is one possible reason for the Megaladapis’ extinction.

©FunkMonk (Michael B. H.) / CC BY-SA 3.0, , via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The word Megaladapis is Greek and means “giant lemur.” Paleontologists discovered this giant lemur in the Madagascan forests. It is estimated to have been five feet long and weighed about 100 pounds. This giant was around from approximately two million to 10,000 years ago. Hunting in excess is one possible reason for its extinction. In addition, early humans used a technique of brush-clearing called “slash and burn,” which led to habitat loss and eventual demise. The Megaladapis had a large head and short limbs, unlike its more modern cousins. In addition, Megaladapis fossils show that it had cow-like teeth. This characteristic would have benefited the Megaladapis, as paleontologists believe it ate hardy leaves. And, as it was mostly a tree-dwelling prehistoric primate, its hands and feet were adapted to grab onto branches. This attribute would have prevented the Megaladapis from traveling long distances on the ground.

Summary of 7 Prehistoric Primates You Should Know About

Here’s a recap of the seven prehistoric primates that we took a close look at.

NumberPrimateTime of ExistenceHabitatEstimated Size
1AfropithecusAround 17 million years agoAfrican jungles5 feet tall; weighed about 100 pounds
2ArchicebusAbout 55 million years agoAsian woodlandsWeighed about 0.7-1 ounces
3BabakotiaApproximately 2 million to 2,000 years agoWoodlands of Madagascar4 feet long; weighed 30-40 pounds
4DryopithecusBecame extinct about 10 million years agoMainly woodlands in Africa; later migrated to Europe and Asia4 feet long; weighed around 25 pounds
5EosimiasDied out about 40 million years agoWoodlands of AsiaA few inches long; weighed about 1 ounce
6GigantopithecusAbout 6 million to 200,000 years agoAsian woodlandsAbout 9 feet tall; weighed 1,000 pounds
7Megaladapis2 million to 10,000 years agoMadagascan forests5 feet long; weighed about 100 pounds

Share this post on:
About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with more than eight years of content creation experience. My content writing covers diverse genres, and I have a business degree. I am also the proud author of my memoir, My Sub-Lyme Life. This work details the effects of living with undiagnosed infections like rickettsia (like Lyme). By sharing this story, I wish to give others hope and courage in overcoming their life challenges. In my downtime, I value spending time with friends and family.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.