'U' professors involved in study of ancient primate fossil discovery

BY LARA ZADE
Managing News Editor
Published May 25, 2009

Two University professors were part of an anthropological dream team that recently unveiled a 47-million-year-old primate fossil that sheds new light on the origins of humans.

Philip Gingerich, director of the University’s Museum of Paleontology and B. Holly Smith, associate research scientist of the University’s Museum of Anthropology, contributed to the study of a new primate species, Darwinius masillae — dubbed Ida for short. Ida represents an arboreal quadruped that roamed the forests of Messel, Germany nearly 50 million years ago.

The fossil is gaining attention because it’s one of the most complete primate fossils ever recovered and represents an ancient primate group that researchers now believe monkeys and apes — and, subsequently, humans later on — evolved from.

“It was a real privilege to study, because I do have to say, I’ve never seen a fossil that has so much information out of it,” Smith said.

Smith added that the fossil was so well preserved that its stomach contents were still intact.

Ida is believed to have been a weaned, juvenile female who died before one year of age. She is a member of the adapoid primates, a group that was formerly thought to have contributed solely to modern-day lemurs and set aside from the lineage of monkeys and apes.

But, Gingerich, Smith and the four other researchers who studied the fossil concluded based on certain morphological characteristics more similar to monkeys and apes than to lemurs that the adapoid group cannot be dismissed as an outlier in human evolution.

“This animal has front teeth incisors like ours, like monkeys and apes and humans do,” Gingerich said. “It doesn’t have pointed incisors like tarisers and not combed incisors like lemurs. It also has toes, and if it’s a lemur it should have a grooming claw, but it doesn’t.”

According to Gingerich, Ida was found 20 to 25 years ago when an amateur fossil hunter in Messel, Germany, walked through a rock pile and found a slab of rock and split it in half. One half exhibited an intact half of the fossil, while the other half suffered from numerous fractures, which its discoverer tried to hide.

The private collector then sold the broken half about 10 years ago and kept the preserved half hidden. It wasn’t until about two years ago that the other half was sold to the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo and research began.

The fossil was so remarkably preserved because it was fossilized in an environment that lacked bacteria to decompose it.

Though Ida’s remarkable circumstances and preservation are newsworthy, the attention the fossil has garnered thus far is unusual. On May 19, a press conference was held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, while on the same day, a book was released. In addition, the television channel History premiered a special titled “The Link” on May 25, vowing in its ads that Ida would “change history forever.”

Gingerich said he believes the popularity is due to the outstanding public relations contributions by fellow researcher Jørn H. Hurum from the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo.

“I have to say Jørn is by far the best organizer I have ever seen,” Gingerich said. “He organized the TV program that (came) out Monday night, and the book that came out simultaneously with the press conference last Tuesday, and got all of the scientists to have their writing done, on the same day. Not many people can do that.”

Smith admitted that she thought History’s claim about Ida’s discovery is a “wild exaggeration,” but that its significance will overcome any outrageous generalizations.

“Whether or not in the end people put (Ida) closer to the stem of human ancestry matters less to me than that she’s a good general idea of what that ancestor could be like,” Smith said. “It shows you very much what our ancestors would have been like at that time.”