Our big cousins of the animal world, the prosimians, monkeys and apes, may be the most engaging of all because we see ourselves in them.
Like all animals, we know primates are struggling to survive in a world full of ferocious enemies. But when we see them leaping and chattering through the branches or chasing and squabbling on the forest floor, we can’t help but think of playful children and of the happiest times in our own lives.
Monkeys and, even more so, apes are truly our closest relatives. It is certain that humans and the primates come from common ancestors. Monkeys began to spread out and diversify early, before the original land mass broke apart into the continents we know today. So now, clearly related yet somewhat distinct groups of monkeys can be found in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Later, in the trees of African forests, the apes branched off, lost their tails and refined some very human-like characteristics such as binocular vision and grasping hands with fully opposable thumbs. From tiny marmosets to massive apes, modern primates have taken on a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
We have come to know that primates are the cleverest non-human animals in the world. We have observed them using tools, organizing group strategies and social order, and communicating in ways that look a lot like the beginnings of language must have looked in our own species. While lacking the vocalizing equipment we possess, some primates, through an ability to learn sign language, are able to communicate with us directly.
In sometimes bright shades of blue, red, and gold, some monkeys, like the group known as guenons, seem like theatrical caricatures in costumes and masks. They look at us in the eyes from behind their masks and seem to recognize us, as we recognize them, to be very close cousins.
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