Chapter 5: Living Primates


The primate order consists of two suborders, the prosimians, which are pre-apes, and the anthropoids, which are monkeys and apes. Modern humans are part of the primate order because we are a type of ape. We study non-human primates because they provide clues about our own ancestors and because of their close biological and behavioral links to modern humans. Like other anthropologists, primatologists, or those who study primates, also conduct long periods of fieldwork.


Humans are classified within the primate order and all primates belong to the class called Mammals. All mammals share certain traits, including giving live birth, producing milk to feed their young, long periods of offspring dependency, and near constant body temperatures.


The Primate Order

Records of fossilized primates start around the time of the dinosaurs, roughly 65 mya. These early primates were rodent-like animals that evolved into a vast array of modern organisms that vary widely in look, habitat and behavior. Humans are the primates that have the largest habitat. We inhabit nearly every continent and landmass on earth.

Morphology (Appearance)

Despite their great range of physical differences, primates tend to share some basic features.


The similarities in our physical form are related to shared behaviors.


Primatologists study the environments in which non-human primates live in order to provide a context for their behaviors and features.


Having to search for food affects how an animal moves about, the size of their habitat and even their behavior. All non-human primates forage, or get food by gathering, hunting or scavenging. Different primates make use of different kinds of foods. All primates fit into five feeding types based on what the majority of their food intake is.



Prosimians consist of the primates that are most distantly related to humans, in an evolutionary sense, and which are mostly found in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, including Madagascar.


Anthropoids include New and Old World Monkeys, Humans and Apes. They are different from prosimians in that they have nails and not claws on their digits, forward facing eyes, larger brains, dry noses and flatter faces. They also use their hands, not their mouths, for grooming.

New World Monkeys

Old World Monkeys



Social Behavior

Not all primates behave in the same way and this allows them to adapt and be flexible when they encounter changes in their environment.


All primates have complex communication and signaling systems. It allows individuals to band together and live in groups.

Tool Use

For much of our discipline’s history, we thought making and using tools was a distinctive feature of human behavior. We were wrong. Tool use is found among all chimpanzee and bonobo groups and some groups of gorillas, orangutans and capuchin monkeys. No wild prosimian regularly makes or uses tools. In captivity though, all the great apes and even capuchins can be trained to make and use tools. It is likely that modern humans and our ancestors inherited the ability to make and use tools from the last common ancestor we shared with the other primates.


Non-Human Primate Culture

Culture was also thought of as a distinctly human trait for much of our discipline’s history. Since culture is broadly defined as behavior that is learned and shared, non-human primates are often viewed as having something like a rudimentary culture. Analysis of chimp groups revealed 39 behavioral differences that can only be explained as different cultures. By passing on specific tool making, food getting or other behavioral skills, great ape communities are creating cultural traditions.

Endangered Non-Human Primates

Because of their own value and their value to our understanding our past and present selves, we must be mindful of the fact that out of over 300 non-human primate species, over half of them are at risk extinction. Rapid economic growth and globalization, massive resource consumption and unequal access to the basic necessities of life all contribute to conditions that threaten these primates.

Threats From Humans

Human activities are now a greater threat to non-human primate survival than wild ones. Most primates live in tropical forests in less developed nations. New consumption patterns and population growth lead to the need for wood, land, and even bush-meat. Environmental degradation also harms the habitats where they are found. While logging and other commercial interests can create massive habitat loss, even small, patchy destruction of areas of forest can harm these primates because it fragments and isolates their populations, reducing the genetic diversity of their gene pools. They are also threatened with live capture for zoos, pet stores or research.