SCIENTISTS have unveiled a 47-million-year-old fossilised skeleton of a monkey hailed as the missing link in human evolution.
Beautifully preserved, the fossil, nicknamed Ida, is claimed to be a missing link between today’s higher primates – monkeys, apes and humans – and more distant relatives. The fossil, Darwinius masillae, named to celebrate its place of origin and the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, sheds light on the human story when the primate family tree split into two branches, one of which ultimately led to humans, and the other to distant primate cousins such as lemurs, lorises and bushbabies.
Described as the “most complete fossil primate ever discovered”, the preservation is so good, it is possible to see the outline of its fur and even traces of its last meal.
Ida bears “a close resemblance to ourselves” scientists said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb – like humans and some other primates. But Ida is not a direct ancestor – instead she is more of an “aunt” than a “grandmother”.
New York City’s American Museum of Natural History put the lemur-like fossil on display yesterday, after scientists conducted examinations in secret for the past two years. The skeleton of the ancient primate was found near Frankfurt, Germany, in the Messel Shale Pit in 1983, but has been in a private collection for much of the intervening period.
The investigation of the fossil’s significance was led by Dr Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. “This specimen is like finding the lost ark for archaeologists. This fossil will probably be the one pictured in all textbooks for the next 100 years,” he said.
He said the fossil creature was “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor” and described the discovery as “a dream come true”.
Dr Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel pit and a member of the team, described Ida as “like the eighth wonder of the world”, because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton. The animal’s last meal, of fruit and leaves, remained in the stomach cavity.
It was about nine months old, the equivalent of a six-year-old human. David Attenborough, who will present a BBC documentary on the discovery next week, said: “This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all mammals. This is the one that connects us directly with them. The link they would have said until now is missing… is no longer missing.”
Attenborough said Darwin would have been thrilled to have seen the fossil.
The fossil has been nicknamed Ida after Dr Hurum’s six-year-old daughter, whose adult teeth were erupting when her father was studying the fossil.
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