Scientists have discovered an exquisitely preserved ancient primate fossil that they believe forms a crucial “missing link” between our own evolutionary branch of life and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The 47m-year-old primate – named Ida – has been hailed as the fossil equivalent of a “Rosetta Stone” for understanding the critical early stages of primate evolution.
The top-level international research team, who have studied her in secret for the past two years, believe she is the most complete and best preserved primate fossil ever uncovered. The skeleton is 95% complete and thanks to the unique location where she died, it is possible to see individual hairs covering her body and even the make-up of her final meal – a last vegetarian snack.
“This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all the mammals; with cows and sheep, and elephants and anteaters,” said Sir David Attenborough who is narrating a BBC documentary on the find. “The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo.”
“This will be the one pictured in the textbooks for the next hundred years,” said Dr Jørn Hurum, the palaeontologist from Oslo University’s Natural History Museum who assembled the scientific team to study the fossil. “It tells a part of our evolution that’s been hidden so far. It’s been hidden because the only [other] specimens are so incomplete and so broken there’s nothing almost to study.” The fossil has been formally named Darwinius masillae in honour of Darwin’s 200th birthday year.
It has been shipped across the Atlantic for an unveiling ceremony hosted by the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg today. There is even talk of Ida being the first non-living thing to feature on the front cover of People magazine.
She will then be transported back to Oslo, via a brief stop at the Natural History Museum in London on Tuesday, 26 May, when Attenborough will host a press conference.
Ida was originally discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in the summer of 1983 at Messel pit, a world renowned fossil site near Darmstadt in Germany. He kept it under wraps for over 20 years before deciding to sell it via a German fossil dealer called Thomas Perner. It was Perner who approached Hurum two years ago.
Religion can’t explain this, yet there it is, physical proof of evolution. Science wins. Can we move on now?