No More Missing Links

Tuesday’s announcement of the almost perfectly preserved 47 million year old fossil that finally provides the missing evolutionary link between humans and apes has been greeted with a number of impressive superlatives. Sir David Attenborough says it’s the fossil equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, Jorn Hurum from the American Museum of Natural History says it’s like Indiana Jones finding the Lost Ark, and in general, the scientific community have worked themselves up into a bit of a frenzy.

And it’s easy to see why. The lemur-like creature’s fossil – named Ida after the daughter of the scientist who has studied it in secret for the last two years – shows opposable thumbs and fingernails instead of claws, and her back legs are said to reveal secrets about the evolutionary stages that led to primates walking upright. As well as having an almost complete skeleton, Ida, because of the unique area where she was discovered, is so well preserved that you can see the individual hairs covering her body, and even the remains of her last vegetarian meal.

Amazingly enough, Ida was actually discovered in 1983, but the archaeologists at the time did not realise the significance of their find. They certainly do now though, and the carefully managed publicity campaign that has “launched” this discovery shows no sign of abating. A documentary on the discovery is airing next week, and other books and programmes are sure to follow in their hundreds. But whilst it’s easy to be a little bit cynical about the stage managing of the whole thing, this truly is a momentous occasion for science, and our understanding of our own past. It’s fitting therefore that the official name of the fossil is Darwinus masillae, and that the announcement of the discovery was timed to coincide with the great man’s bicentenary. Darwin (who’s birthday Proporta celebrated recently with a range of limited edition products) would have been as excited as anyone by this find, that finally removes the major ammunition for anti-evolutionists, and this is a fossil that, as one scientist noted, will be pictured in all our textbooks for the next 100 years.

So Ida may only be 53cm long, and may only have lived to be 9 months old, but as of this week she’s become everyone’s most famous great-great-aunt. And isn’t she pretty?

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