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Our ancestors were smaller than rats?BEIJING: Early ancestors of human beings might be 'miniscule monkeys' smaller than rats, an international study has said.

Studies of the world's oldest known fossil primate skeleton, unearthed in central China's Hubei province in 2003, suggest that the early ancestors of humans might be very small creatures.

The nearly complete skeleton belongs to a new genus and species named Archicebus achilles, according to a paper co-written by Chinese, American and French scientists. Scientists said the monkey lived 55 million years ago, during the early part of the Eocene epoch.

It is 7 million years older than the oldest primates known previously, including Darwinius from Messel in Germany and Notharctus from Wyoming in the US.

The tiny primate had a body around 71mm long and its weight was estimated between 20 and 30 grams.

Studies into its skeleton suggest that the creature was a frequent leaper favouring four-limbed grasp-leaping , and its small eyes and pointy teeth indicate it was an insecthunter only by day.

Anatomy into its feet suggest the primate was adept at tree climbing and leaping.

Ni Xijun of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who led the research team, said the primate was an early member of the tarsier family but one very close to anthropoids , which include monkeys , apes and humans.

"It lies close to the root of the primate phylogenetic tree, where the lineages of tarsiers and anthropoids have just begun to diverge, which explains why it bears traits of both tarsiers and anthropoids ," Ni told Chinese staterun Xinhua news agency. Ni said the discovery of the new primate offered clues to the evolutionary roots of higher primates, or anthropoids, and illustrated the life of human's farthest ancestors.

The fossil 'Odd Hybrid' was unearthed from an ancient lake-bed near Jinzhou, near the course of the Yangtze river. Scientists from the three countries spent 10 years comparing more than 1,000 anatomical characters of 157 mammals to determine its position in the primate family tree. The primate lived during a period of global "greenhouse" conditions, when much of the world was shrouded in tropical rainforests.

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