Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Scientists Announce the Discovery of a 47-Million-Year-Old Primate Fossil that is Set to Revolutionize Our Understanding of Human Evolution

/PRNewswire/ -- Scientists have announced today 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 today 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, 2009. The book will reveal in full detail 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 Dr. 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.

-- Ida lived 47 million years ago, at a critical period in the Earth's
history. Her life fell within the Eocene Epoch, a time when the
blueprints for modern mammals were being established. After dinosaurs
became extinct, early horses, bats, whales, and many other creatures,
including the first primates, thrived on a subtropical planet. The
Earth was just beginning to take the shape that we know and recognize
today -- the Himalayas were being formed and modern flora and fauna
were evolving. Land mammals, including primates, lived amid vast
jungles.

-- Ida was found to be lacking two of the key anatomical features found
in lemurs: a grooming claw on the second digit of the foot, and a
fused row of teeth in the middle of her lower jaw, known as a
toothcomb. She has nails rather than the claws typical of
nonanthropoid primates such as lemurs, and her teeth are similar to
those of monkeys. Her forward-facing eyes are like ours -- which would
have enabled her fields of vision to overlap, allowing 3-D vision and
an ability to judge distance.

-- The fossil's hands show a humanlike opposable thumb. Like all
primates, Ida has five fingers on each hand. Her opposable thumb would
have provided a precision grip. In Ida's case, this would have been
useful for climbing and gathering fruit; in our case, it allows
important human functions such as making tools and writing. Ida also
would have had flexible arms, which would have allowed her to use both
hands for any task that cannot be done with one -- like grabbing a
piece of fruit.

-- Evidence of a talus bone links Ida to us. The bone has the same shape
as it does in humans today, though the human talus is obviously
bigger. Extensive X-rays, CT scanning, and computer tomography reveal
Ida to have been about nine months old when she died and provide clues
to her diet, which included berries and plants. Furthermore, the lack
of a bacculum (penis bone) means that the fossil was definitely
female.

-- X-rays reveal that a broken wrist may have contributed to Ida's death
-- her left wrist was healing from a bad fracture. The scientists
believe she was overcome by carbon dioxide gas while she was drinking
from the Messel Lake; the still waters of the lake were often covered
with a low-lying blanket of the gas as a result of the volcanic forces
that formed the lake and were still active. Hampered by her broken
wrist, Ida slipped into unconsciousness, was washed into the lake, and
sank to the bottom, where the unique conditions preserved her for 47
million years.

THE LINK will be published in the United Kingdom by Little, Brown, in Germany by Piper Verlag, and in France by JC Lattes. The findings of the two-year study will also be revealed by Atlantic Productions in a special documentary film, The Link, to be screened by History on Monday May 25, 2009, at 9:00 p.m. EDT/PDT, and broadcast worldwide in over twenty countries.

An interactive, content-rich website about Ida has been launched at www.revealingthelink.com.

The full scientific findings from the study are set out in the paper "Complete primate skeleton from the middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology," published by PLoS One, the Public Library of Science's interactive open-access journal for the communication of peer-reviewed scientific and medical research (www.plosone.org).

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