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Common Ancestor Of Humans, Modern Primates? 'Extraordinary' Fossil Is 47 
Million Years Old

masillae, new genus and species, from Messel in Germany. (Credit:
Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W,
et al. Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in
Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4(5): e5723 DOI:
ScienceDaily (May 19, 2009) — Scientists have found a 47-million-year-old human 
Discovered in Messel Pit, Germany, the fossil, described as Darwinius
masillae, is 20 times older than most fossils that explain human
Known as “Ida,” the fossil is a transitional species – it shows
characteristics from the very primitive non-human evolutionary line
(prosimians, such as lemurs), but is more related to the human
evolutionary line (anthropoids, such as monkeys, apes and humans). At
95% complete, the fossil provides the most complete understanding of
the paleobiology of any Eocene primate so far discovered.
The scientists’ findings are published in PLoS ONE, the open-access, 
peer-reviewed journal from the Public Library of Science.
For the past two years, an international team of scientists, led by
world-renowned Norwegian fossil scientist Dr Jørn Hurum, University of
Oslo Natural History Museum, has secretly conducted a detailed forensic
analysis of the extraordinary fossil, studying the data to decode
humankind’s ancient origins. At 95% complete, Ida is set to
revolutionize our understanding of primate evolution.
"This is the first link to all humans ... truly a fossil that links world 
heritage," said Dr. Hurum.
"It’s really a kind of Rosetta Stone," commented study co-author
Professor Philip Gingerich, of the Museum of Paleontology at the
University of Michigan.
The fossil was apparently discovered in 1983 by private collectors
who split and eventually sold two parts of the skeleton on separate
plates: the lesser part was restored and, in the process, partly
fabricated to make it look more complete. This part was eventually
purchased for a private museum in Wyoming, and then described by one of
the authors (Jens L. Franzen) who recognized the fabrication. The more
complete part has just come to light, and it now belongs to the Natural
History Museum of the University of Oslo (Norway). The PLoS ONE paper describes 
the study that resulted from finally having access to the complete fossil 
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, the mile-wide crater and 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 nail
bearing tips on the fingers and toes confirm the fossil is a primate,
and a foot bone called the talus bone 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
before she died. X-rays reveal both baby and adult teeth, and the lack
of a ‘toothcomb’ or a ‘grooming claw’ which is an attribute of lemurs.
The scientists estimate Ida’s age when she died to be approximately
nine months, and she measured approximately three feet in length.
Ida lived 47 million years ago at a critical period in Earth’s
history–the Eocene Epoch, a time when the blueprints for modern mammals
were being established. Following the extinction of dinosaurs, the
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 evolved. Land mammals,
including primates, lived amid vast jungle.
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 claw typical of non-anthropoid 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 3D 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 is useful for
climbing and gathering fruit; in our case, it allows important human
functions such as making tools, and writing. Ida would have also 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.
Like us, Ida also has quite short arms and legs.
Evidence in the talus bone links Ida to us. The bone has the same
shape as in humans today. Only the human talus is obviously bigger.
X-rays and CT scanning reveal Ida to be 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 whilst from drinking
from the Messel lake: the still waters of the lake were often covered
by a low lying blanket of the gas as a result of the volcanic forces
that formed the lake and which were still active. Hampered by her
broken wrist, Ida slipped into unconsciousness, was washed into the
lake, and sunk to the bottom, where the unique conditions preserved her
for 47 million years.
The findings of the two-year study will be revealed exclusively by
Atlantic Productions in a special documentary film, "The Link," to be
screened by History on Monday May 25th, 2009 at 9pm ET/PT and BBC One
in the UK Tuesday May 26th, 2009 at 9pm BST. It will also be broadcast
on ZDF, NRK and around the world. A major book, "The Link," will be
published by Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book
Group, on Wednesday May 20th. An interactive, content-rich website
about Ida has been launched at http://www.revealingthelink.com.
"This little creature is going to show us our connection with all
the rest of the mammals," said renowned broadcaster and naturalist Sir
David Attenborough. "The link they would have said until now is missing
... it is no longer missing."
Journal reference:
        1. Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald 
W, et al. Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in 
Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4(5): e5723 DOI: 
Adapted from materials provided by Public Library of Science.
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Primates? 'Extraordinary' Fossil Is 47 Million Years Old. ScienceDaily. 
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