, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 322-332
Date: 03 Aug 2010

Apes and Tricksters: The Evolution and Diversification of Humans’ Closest Relatives


The evolutionary history of humans comprises an important but small branch on the larger tree of ape evolution. Today’s hominoids—gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans—are a meager representation of the ape diversity that characterized the Old World from 23–5 million years ago. In this paper, I briefly review this evolutionary history focusing on features important for understanding modern ape and human origins. As the full complexity of ape evolution is beyond this review, I characterize major geographic, temporal, and phylogenetic groups using a few flagship taxa. Improving our knowledge of hominoid evolution both complicates and clarifies studies of human origins. On one hand, features thought to be unique to the human lineage find parallels in some fossil ape species, reducing their usefulness for identifying fossil humans. On the other hand, the Miocene record of fossil apes provides an important source for generating hypotheses about the ancestral human condition; this is particularly true given the dearth of fossils representing our closest living relatives: chimpanzees and gorillas.