12:35am UK, Wednesday May 20, 2009
Scientists have unveiled a 47-million-year-old fossilised skeleton of a monkey hailed as the missing link in human evolution.
This 95%-complete 'lemur monkey' is described as the "eighth wonder of the world"
The search for a direct connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom has taken 200 years - but it was presented to the world today at a special news conference in New York.
The discovery of the 95%-complete 'lemur monkey' - dubbed Ida - is described by experts as the "eighth wonder of the world".
They say its impact on the world of palaeontology will be "somewhat like an asteroid falling down to Earth".
Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.
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"This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of the mammals," he said.
"This is the one that connects us directly with them.
"Now people can say 'okay we are primates, show us the link'.
"The link they would have said up to now is missing - well it's no longer missing."
A team of the world's leading fossil experts, led by Professor Jorn Hurum, of Norway's National History Museum, have beensecretly researching the 1ft 9in-tall young female monkey for the past two years.
And now it has been transported to New York under high security and unveiled to the world during the bicentenary of Darwin's birth.
Darwin caused storm with his theory
Later this month, it will be exhibited for one day only at the Natural History Museum in London before being returned to Oslo.
Scientists say Ida - squashed to the thickness of a beer mat by the immense passage of time - is the most complete primate fossil ever found.
With her human-like nails instead of claws, and opposable big toes, she is placed at the very root of human evolution when early primates first developed features that would eventually develop into our own.
Another important discovery is the shape of the talus bone in her foot, which humans still have in their feet millions of lifetimes later.
Ida was unearthed by an amateur fossil-hunter some 25 years ago in Messel pit, an ancient crater lake near Frankfurt, Germany, famous for its fossils.
She was cleaned and set in polyester resin - and incredibly, was hung on a mystery German collector's wall for 20 years.
Sky News sources say the owner had no idea of the unique fossil's significance and simply admired it like a cherished Van Gogh or Picasso painting.
But in 2006, Ida came into the hands of private dealer Thomas Perner, who presented her to Prof Hurum at the annual Hamburg Fossil and Mineral Fair in Germany - a centre for themurky world of fossil-trading.
Prof Hurum said when he first saw the blueprint for evolution - the "most beautiful fossil worldwide" - he could not sleep for two days.
A home movie records the dramatic moment.
"This is really something that the world has never seen before, this is a unique specimen, totally unique," he says, clearly emotional.
X-ray of Ida's badly fractured left wrist
He says he knew she should be saved for science rather than end up hidden from the world in a wealthy private collector's vault.
But the dealer's asking price was more than $1 million (£660,000) - ten times the amount even the rarest of fossils fetch on the black market.
Eventually, after six months of negotiations, he managed to raise the cash in Norway and brought Ida to Oslo.
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Prof Hurum - who last summer dug up the fossil remains of a 50ft marine monster called Predator X from the permafrost on Svalbard, a Norwegian island close to the North Pole - then assembled a "dream team" of experts who worked in secret for two years.
They included palaeontologist Dr Jens Franzen, Dr Holly Smith, of the University of Michigan, and Philip Gingerich, president-elect of the US Paleontological Society.
Researchers could prove the fossil was genuine through X-rays, knowing it is impossible to fake the inner structure of a bone.
Through radiometric dating of Messel's volcanic rocks, they discovered Ida lived 47 million years ago in the Eocene period.
This was when tropical forests stretched right to the poles, and South America was still drifting and had yet to make contact with North America.
During that period, the first whales, horses, bats and monkeys emerged, and the early primates branched into two groups - one group lived on mainly as lemurs, and the second developed into monkeys, apes and humans.
The experts concluded Ida was not simply a lemur but a 'lemur monkey', displaying a mixture of both groups, and therefore putting her at the very branch of the human line.
"When Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, he said a lot about transitional species," said Prof Hurum
"...and he said that will never be found, a transitional species, and his whole theory will be wrong, so he would be really happy to live today when we publish Ida.
"This fossil is really a part of our history; this is part of our evolution, deep, deep back into the aeons of time, 47 million years ago.
"It's part of our evolution that's been hidden so far, it's been hidden because all the other specimens are so incomplete.
"They are so broken there's almost nothing to study and now this wonderful fossil appears and it makes the story so much easier to tell, so it's really a dream come true."
Up until now, the most famous fossil primate in the world has been Lucy, a 3.18-million-year-old hominid found in Ethiopia in 1974.
She was then our earliest known ancestor, and only 40% complete.
But at 95% complete, Ida was so well preserved in the mud at the bottom of the volcanic lake, there is even evidence of her fur shadow and remains of her last meal.
From this they concluded she was a leaf and fruit eater, and probably lived in the trees around the lake.
The absence of a bacculum (penis bone) confirmed she was female, and her milk teeth put her age at about nine-months-old - in maturity, equivalent to a six-year-old human child.
This was the same age as Prof Hurum's daughter Ida, and he named the fossil after her.
The study is being published and put online by the Public Library of Science, a leading academic journal with offices in Britain and the US.
Dr Hurum also found Predator X
Co-author of the scientific paper, Prof Gingerich, likens its importance to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian artefact found in 1799, which allowed us to decipher hieroglyphic writing.
One clue to Ida's fate - and her remarkable preservation as our oldest ancestor - was her badly fractured left wrist.
The team believes this stopped her from climbing and she had to emerge from the trees to drink water from the 250-metre-deep lake.
They think she was overcome by carbon dioxide gas from the crater, and sunk to the bottom where she was preserved in the mud as a time capsule - and a snapshot of evolution.
But amazingly this final piece of Darwin's jigsaw was almost lost to science when German authorities tried to turn Messel into a massive landfill rubbish dump.
Eventually, after campaigning by Dr Franzen, the plans were rejected and the fossil-rich lake was designated a World Heritage Site.
But no doubt there would have been one person happy for the missing link to have remained hidden.
When Darwin famously told the Bishop of Worcester's wife about his theory of evolution, she remarked: "Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."
Now, it certainly is.