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Hist Philos Life Sci. 1995;17(3):447-60.

Protopithecus: rediscovering the first fossil primate.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052, USA.


The earliest discoveries of extinct primates and humans profoundly affected the course of evolutionary theory as a scientific model for explaining life and its diversity through time. The absence of such fossils in the early nineteenth century provided important negative evidence to the competing French intellectual schools of Lamarckian evolutionism and Cuvierian catastrophism. Indeed, the first recognition of extinct primates fell serendipitously between the death of Cuvier in 1832 and the revolutionary writings of Darwin in 1859. Largely unknown to history, however, is that four different European scholars, working on three continents, independently discovered and recognized extinct primates within a few months of each other in 1836. The first of these to be formally named, Protopithecus, is ironically the least well known despite being the largest monkey ever discovered in the western hemisphere. The reasons for this forgotten first discovery reflect a general unawareness of South American mammals, and propagation of misinterpretation at a critical time in the history of primatology.

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