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Introduction to Anthropology

4.5 What Is a Primate?

Introduction to Anthropology4.5 What Is a Primate?

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Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. 1 What Is Anthropology?
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Study of Humanity, or "Anthropology Is Vast"
    3. 1.2 The Four-Field Approach: Four Approaches within the Guiding Narrative
    4. 1.3 Overcoming Ethnocentrism
    5. 1.4 Western Bias in Our Assumptions about Humanity
    6. 1.5 Holism, Anthropology’s Distinctive Approach
    7. 1.6 Cross-Cultural Comparison and Cultural Relativism
    8. 1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  3. 2 Methods: Cultural and Archaeological
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Archaeological Research Methods
    3. 2.2 Conservation and Naturalism
    4. 2.3 Ethnography and Ethnology
    5. 2.4 Participant Observation and Interviewing
    6. 2.5 Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis
    7. 2.6 Collections
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  4. 3 Culture Concept Theory: Theories of Cultural Change
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 The Homeyness of Culture
    3. 3.2 The Winkiness of Culture
    4. 3.3 The Elements of Culture
    5. 3.4 The Aggregates of Culture
    6. 3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis
    7. 3.6 The Paradoxes of Culture
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  5. 4 Biological Evolution and Early Human Evidence
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?
    3. 4.2 What’s in a Name? The Science of Taxonomy
    4. 4.3 It’s All in the Genes! The Foundation of Evolution
    5. 4.4 Evolution in Action: Past and Present
    6. 4.5 What Is a Primate?
    7. 4.6 Origin of and Classification of Primates
    8. 4.7 Our Ancient Past: The Earliest Hominins
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  6. 5 The Genus Homo and the Emergence of Us
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Defining the Genus Homo
    3. 5.2 Tools and Brains: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus
    4. 5.3 The Emergence of Us: The Archaic Homo
    5. 5.4 Tracking Genomes: Our Human Story Unfolds
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  7. 6 Language and Communication
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 The Emergence and Development of Language
    3. 6.2 Language and the Mind
    4. 6.3 Language, Community, and Culture
    5. 6.4 Performativity and Ritual
    6. 6.5 Language and Power
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  8. 7 Work, Life, and Value: Economic Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Economies: Two Ways to Study Them
    3. 7.2 Modes of Subsistence
    4. 7.3 Gathering and Hunting
    5. 7.4 Pastoralism
    6. 7.5 Plant Cultivation: Horticulture and Agriculture
    7. 7.6 Exchange, Value, and Consumption
    8. 7.7 Industrialism and Postmodernity
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  9. 8 Authority, Decisions, and Power: Political Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems
    3. 8.2 Acephalous Societies: Bands and Tribes
    4. 8.3 Centralized Societies: Chiefdoms and States
    5. 8.4 Modern Nation-States
    6. 8.5 Resistance, Revolution, and Social Movements
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  10. 9 Social Inequalities
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Theories of Inequity and Inequality
    3. 9.2 Systems of Inequality
    4. 9.3 Intersections of Inequality
    5. 9.4 Studying In: Addressing Inequities within Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  11. 10 The Global Impact of Human Migration
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 Peopling of the World
    3. 10.2 Early Global Movements and Cultural Hybridity
    4. 10.3 Peasantry and Urbanization
    5. 10.4 Inequality along the Margins
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  12. 11 Forming Family through Kinship
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 What Is Kinship?
    3. 11.2 Defining Family and Household
    4. 11.3 Reckoning Kinship across Cultures
    5. 11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  13. 12 Gender and Sexuality
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Anthropology
    3. 12.2 Performing Gender Categories
    4. 12.3 The Power of Gender: Patriarchy and Matriarchy
    5. 12.4 Sexuality and Queer Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  14. 13 Religion and Culture
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 What Is Religion?
    3. 13.2 Symbolic and Sacred Space
    4. 13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine
    5. 13.4 Rituals of Transition and Conformity
    6. 13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  15. 14 Anthropology of Food
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 Food as a Material Artifact
    3. 14.2 A Biocultural Approach to Food
    4. 14.3 Food and Cultural Identity
    5. 14.4 The Globalization of Food
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  16. 15 Anthropology of Media
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 Putting the Mass into Media
    3. 15.2 Putting Culture into Media Studies
    4. 15.3 Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film
    5. 15.4 Photography, Representation, and Memory
    6. 15.5 News Media, the Public Sphere, and Nationalism
    7. 15.6 Community, Development, and Broadcast Media
    8. 15.7 Broadcasting Modernity and National Identity
    9. 15.8 Digital Media, New Socialities
    10. Key Terms
    11. Summary
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Bibliography
  17. 16 Art, Music, and Sport
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Anthropology of the Arts
    3. 16.2 Anthropology of Music
    4. 16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time
    5. 16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  18. 17 Medical Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 What Is Medical Anthropology?
    3. 17.2 Ethnomedicine
    4. 17.3 Theories and Methods
    5. 17.4 Applied Medical Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  19. 18 Human-Animal Relationship
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Humans and Animals
    3. 18.2 Animals and Subsistence
    4. 18.3 Symbolism and Meaning of Animals
    5. 18.4 Pet-Keeping
    6. 18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  20. 19 Indigenous Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Indigenous Peoples
    3. 19.2 Colonization and Anthropology
    4. 19.3 Indigenous Agency and Rights
    5. 19.4 Applied and Public Anthropology and Indigenous Peoples
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  21. 20 Anthropology on the Ground
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Our Challenging World Today
    3. 20.2 Why Anthropology Matters
    4. 20.3 What Anthropologists Can Do
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  22. Index

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define primate.
  • Describe the relationship between primate behavior and environment.
  • Identify and classify the key taxonomic groups of primates.

What Is a Primate?

Orangutan sitting in the crook of a wooden platform.
Figure 4.23 Orangutans, the only great ape from Asia, are one of many living primate species. Others include lemurs, monkeys, gibbons, and human beings. (credit: Dawn Armfield/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Primates—including human beings—are characterized by a number of distinct physical features that distinguish them from other mammals. These include

  • opposable thumbs and (in nonhuman primates) opposable big toes;
  • the presence of five digits (fingers or toes) on the appendages;
  • flat nails instead of curved claws;
  • pads at the tips of the fingers made up of deposits of fat and nerves;
  • reduced reliance on sense of smell and a relatively small snout;
  • depth perception;
  • binocular vision (being able to see one image with both eyes);
  • a relatively slow reproductive rate;
  • relatively large brain size; and
  • postorbital bars (bony rings that completely surround the eyes).
Bonobo crouching on the ground with its hands folded atop one knee.
Figure 4.24 The hands of this bonobo, including its opposable thumbs, look very similar to human hands. Opposable thumbs or toes are a primate trait shared by no other group of mammals. (credit: “Bonobo Plankendaal” by Marie van Dieren/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The first four traits enhance dexterity and enable primates to use their hands and feet differently from other mammals. Other traits on this list represent a shift in emphasis among the sense organs between primates and other mammals. Primates are characterized by a greater emphasis on vision and a reduced reliance on smell relative to other mammals.

Primate Behavioral Variation

Anthropologists regularly ask, “What makes us human?” Comparative studies of humans with nonhuman primates help answer this question. Comparing the behavior of nonhuman primates and the behavior of human beings helps anthropologists identify what culture is and develop operational definitions for it. Without the comparative perspective provided by primatology, anthropologists would be missing an important piece of the puzzle of what makes humans human. Without primatology, anthropologists would not be able to fully understand humankind.

Studying nonhuman primates in their environment is key to understanding variations in behavior and can shed light on humanity’s ancient past. Primatologists are studying the chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where they live in the rainforest. The behavior of chimpanzees that live in the tropical regions of Africa is quite different from the behavior of chimpanzees that live in the savanna at Fongoli in Senegal, in West Africa. Gombe chimps hunt red colobus monkeys without the use of tools, just catching them with their hands, while the Fongoli chimpanzees hunt galagos (also known as bush babies) using sticks that they adapt and used as spears (Pruetz, J.D, et al, 2015). The two environments also show differences in gender roles with both males and females in the Fongoli savannah group involved in hunting while only male chimpanzees hunt in the rainforests. Studying how these nonhuman primates both make and use tools is critical for understanding how humans’ fossil ancestors may have used and constructed tools.

An important question that primatologists and biological anthropologists seek to answer is the question, do nonhuman primates have culture? Whenever we see an exchange of ideas where one individual is involved in teaching another and when that knowledge is passed on to others in a group is according to anthropologists, a form of culture. We see this happen in chimpanzee groups where older chimpanzees teach the young how to use sticks to termite-fish, the process of extracting termites from a termite mound using a stick.

Chimpanzee looking directly at the camera.
Figure 4.25 This chimpanzee lives in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Chimps living in Gombe’s rainforest environment have developed a very different set of hunting techniques and tool use from their relatives living in the grassy savannah. (credit: “Chimp Eden Sanctuary – Mimi” by Afrika Force/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Explaining Primate Success

Why primates evolved as they did and how they filled and exploited the range of ecological niches they now fill are questions that have not yet been adequately addressed. Over the last century, various hypotheses have been raised to account for the evolution of primates and their unusual anatomical characteristics. These theories include the arboreal theory, the visual predation hypothesis, and the angiosperm theory.

The arboreal theory proposes that primates evolved the traits they did as an adaptation to life in the trees. Specifically, primates evolved thumbs and big toes that are perpendicular to the other digits to help them grasp onto branches.

Matt Cartmill, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who spent his career trying to understand why primates evolved the way they did, has complicated this theory. Cartmill recognized that forward-facing eyes are characteristic not only of primates but also of predators such as cats and owls that prey on small animals. Thus, forward-facing eyes, grasping hands and feet, and the presence of nails instead of claws may not have arisen as adaptations to an arboreal environment. Rather, they may be adaptations that helped early primates succeed as predators. According to the visual predation hypothesis, primate features are adaptations for hunting insects and other small prey in the shrubby forest undergrowth and the lowest tiers of the forest canopy.

The angiosperm theory states that the basic primate traits developed in coevolution with the rise of flowering plants, also known as angiosperms. Flowering plants provide numerous resources, including nectar, seeds, and fruits, and their appearance and diversification were accompanied by the appearance of ancestral forms of major groups of modern birds and mammals. Some argue that visual predation is not common among modern primates and that forward-facing eyes and grasping extremities may have arisen in response to the need for fine visual and tactile discrimination in order to feed on small food items, such as fruits, berries, and seeds, found among the branches and stems of flowering plants.

Primate Classification and Taxonomy

Scientists generally classify the order Primates into two suborders: Strepsirrhini (prosimians) and Haplorrhini (tarsiers and anthropoids).

The Strepsirrhini or Prosimians

The Strepsirrhini are considered to be primitive primates that evolved much earlier than other primates. This suborder includes lemurs and lorises. All the Strepsirrhini primates, or strepsirrhines, possess numerous anatomical traits that distinguish them from the Haplorrhini primates, or haplorrhines. These include a clawlike nail on the second toe, referred to as a grooming claw, and incisors in the lower jaw that are tightly packed together and protrude from the mouth, forming what is called a toothcomb. There are seven families of living strepsirrhines, and all of them are found in what anthropologists refer to as the Old World, which consists of the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Five groups of living strepsirrhines are found only on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Two additional families are found in Africa and Asia.

Small primate with huge eyes gripping a person’s wrist.
Figure 4.26 The pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) is an example of a Strepsirrhini primate. Pygmy slow lorises be found in Vietnam, Laos, and a province of China. (credit: Lionel Mauritson/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Haplorrhini or Anthropoids

The Haplorrhini are broken down into two further infraorders, Simiiformes and Tarsiiformes, and the Simiiformes are further divided into Platyrrhini and Catarrhini. The Platyrrhini, or platyrrhines, are exclusively found in the New World (specifically Central and South America) and are colloquially referred to as New World monkeys. Their name is derived from the rounded shape of their external nostrils, which open off to the sides. New World monkeys are also distinguishable by their prehensile tails that serves as an extra limb for extra support when moving in the trees. The Catarrhini, or catarrhines, are found throughout Africa and Asia. They differ from the New World primates in that they possess narrow nostrils that face downward. The Catarrhini contain two superfamilies, Cercopithecoidea and Hominoidea, and are exclusively Old World. The Cercopithecoidea contain two main groups: cheek pouch monkeys (Cercopithecinae) and leaf-eating monkeys (Colobinae). The most distinctive feature of the cercopithecoid primates is their molars, which exhibit two parallel ridges. The most distinguishing feature of the hominoids is that they do not have tails and are largely terrestrial, or ground-dwelling. Examples of Hominoidea include gibbons, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

The Tarsier Puzzle

The tarsier, which belongs to the family Tarsiidae, has both prosimian and anthropoid characteristics, which has made it difficult for scientists to classify. Tarsiers are currently classified within their own classification under the haplorrhines. One of the characteristics that tarsiers share with other haplorrhines, (including humans) is the inability to manufacture their own Vitamin C. They are the smallest known primate and are nocturnal, with extremely large eyes that take up much of the space in their skull. Due to their size of the eyes, the tarsier cannot rotate them; instead, it can rotate its head 360 degrees like an owl. Tarsiers are also the only primate carnivore, eating largely flying insects and sometimes small animals like bats and lizards. Tarsiers do not do well in captivity. They are extremely sensitive to noise and can become easily stressed. In fact, they can become so stressed that they die by suicide by banging their heads against tree trunks.

Small primate with large protruding eyes clinging to a tree branch.
Figure 4.27 The Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta) is found only in the southern portion of the Philippine islands. The tarsier has been challenging for scientists to classify, exhibiting both prosimian and anthropoid characteristics. (credit: “8thApril2007 – ‘Tarsier’ Monkey” by Jacky W./flickr, CC BY 2.0)
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