Theories abound about the evolution of the atelines; one theory is they are most closely related to the woolly spider monkeys (Brachyteles), and most likely split from such woolly monkeys as (Lagothrix and Oreonax) in the South American lowland forest, to evolve their unique locomotory system. This theory is not supported by fossil evidence. Other theories include Brachyteles, Lagothrix and Ateles in an unresolved trichotomy, and two clades, one composed of Ateles and Lagothrix and the other of Alouatta and Brachyteles. More recent molecular evidence suggests the Atelinae split in the middle to late Miocene (13 Ma), separating spider monkeys from the woolly spider monkeys and the woolly monkeys.

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