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