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Monday, May 18, 2009

Discovery of 47-Million-Year-Old Primate Fossil Set to Revolutionize Understanding of Human Evolution

Scientists are announcing the discovery of a 47-million-year-old human ancestor. Discovered in the Messel Pit, Germany, the fossil is twenty times older than most fossils that explain human evolution. Known as "Ida," the fossil is a transitional species, showing characteristics of the very primitive nonhuman evolutionary line (prosimians, such as lemurs), but even more closely those of the human evolutionary line (anthropoids, such as monkeys, apes, and humans).

This places Ida at the very root of anthropoid evolution -- when primates were first developing the features that would evolve into our own. The scientists' findings are published by PLoS One, the open-access journal of the Public Library of Science.

Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, will publish THE LINK, by Colin Tudge, on Wednesday, May 20. The book will reveal the entire story of the discovery, excavation, and preservation, and the revolutionary significance of Ida. THE LINK begins with a foreword by Norwegian fossil scientist Jorn Hurum of the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum, who for the past two years has led an international team of scientists as they secretly conducted a detailed forensic analysis of the extraordinary fossil, studying the data to decode humankind's ancient origins. At 95 percent complete, Ida is set to revolutionize our understanding of human evolution.

Unlike Lucy and other famous primate fossils found in Africa's Cradle of Mankind, Ida is a European fossil, preserved in Germany's Messel Pit, a mile-wide crater whose oil-rich shale is a significant site for fossils of the Eocene Epoch. Fossil analysis reveals that the prehistoric primate was a young female. Opposable big toes and nails rather than claws confirm that the fossil is a primate, and the presence of a talus bone in the foot links Ida directly to humans.

The fossil also features the complete soft body outline as well as the gut contents. A herbivore, Ida feasted on fruits, seeds, and leaves. X-rays reveal both baby and adult teeth, and the lack of a "toothcomb," which is an attribute of lemurs. The scientists estimate Ida's age when she died to be approximately nine months, and she measured approximately two feet in length.

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