Late Miocene and Pliocene hominoids from Yunnan Province in southern China have been recovered from four sites or site complexes: Xiaolongtan, Yangyi, Shihuiba and Yuanmou. Of these, Shihuiba and Yuanmou are among the most prolific fossil hominoid sites in Eurasia, and they have yielded important evidence that is critical for documenting the evolutionary history, biogeography and paleobiology of later Neogene hominids. The aim of this paper is to clarify their taxonomy and nomenclature, and to present a preliminary synthesis of their phylogenetic relationships and biogeography. The morphological pattern and degree of variation observed in the fossil samples is consistent with there being a single, sexually dimorphic species represented at each site. Provisionally, we consider the Shihuiba, Xiaolongtan and Yuanmou samples to belong to two separate species within a single genus. The valid names for these species are Lufengpithecus lufengensis (from Shihuiba) and L. keiyuanensis (from Xiaolongtan and Yuanmou). From a phylogenetic perspective, the currently available evidence suggests that Lufengpithecus is either a primitive hominid that represents the sister taxon of the Ponginae+Homininae or a primitive sister taxon to the Ponginae. We tend to favor the second alternative, but acknowledge that a more comprehensive comparative analysis is needed to substantiate the phylogenetic and taxonomic affinities of Lufengpithecus. Importantly, the Yunnan fossil apes provide a unique temporal perspective on the evolutionary history of hominoids. Their continued occurrence during the late Miocene and Pliocene (~8-2 Ma), when hominoids became extinct throughout the rest of Eurasia, suggests that southern China (and presumably southeast Asia in general) was an important refugium for hominoids, including the ancestors of the orang-utans and gibbons. The uplift of the Tibetan plateau and its impact on regional climatic conditions may have been an important contributing factor in isolating the hominoids geographically and ecologically. We speculate that changed climatic condition in the mid-Pliocene, and possibly the arrival of Homo soon after, may have precipitated the regional extinction of large hominoids in southern China and in mainland southeast Asia.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics