Most complete fossil of primate revealed

Find expected to shed light on evolution

Dr. Jorn Hurum next to a slide of a 47-million-year-old primate fossil in New York yesterday. Dr. Jorn Hurum next to a slide of a 47-million-year-old primate fossil in New York yesterday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
By Thomas H. Maugh II and Tina Susman
Los Angeles Times / May 20, 2009
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NEW YORK - A 47-million-year-old primate fossil that is so complete scientists can even tell what its last meal was promises to shed new light on the earliest stages of evolution of the lineage that eventually led to humans, researchers said yesterday.

The unprecedented new fossil of a lemur-like creature that probably weighed no more than 2 pounds when it was fully grown is remarkable because it is the most complete primate specimen ever obtained.

For the most part, the story of primate evolution has been pieced together from fossilized skulls, jawbones, and the occasional foot - leaving large gaps in anatomy for researchers to fill in with informed speculation.

"This fossil is so complete . . . it is unheard of in the primate record," said paleontologist Jorn H. Hurum of the University of Oslo in Norway. "You have to get to a human burial to see something this complete."

Hurum is the lead author of a paper that appeared yesterday in the online journal PLoS One as part of a massive publicity campaign. The information about the primate was revealed at a Hollywood-premiere-like news conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where a replica of the fossil is now on display.

A book about the discovery, called "The Link," will be published today by Little Brown and Co., and a documentary of the same name will be shown on the History Channel on Monday.

Asked about the unusual amount of hype surrounding the announcement, Hurum was unrepentant. "That's part of getting science out to the public, to get attention," he said. "I don't think that is so wrong."

Despite the researchers' and publicists' best efforts at secrecy, bits and pieces about the primate have leaked out in the last few days.

As is evident from the title of the book and documentary, the fossil is being promoted as a kind of "missing link" in the evolution of humans. But the researchers themselves are more circumspect.

"It is a representative of an ancestral group giving rise of all kinds of higher primates," Hurum said. "We are not dealing with our great-great-great-grandmother, but perhaps our great-great-great-aunt."

Critics, however, say that it is not even that closely related. "It's more like our third cousin twice removed," said paleontologist Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History at Johns Hopkins University. "It's part of the primate family tree that is about as far away from humans as you can get and still be a primate."

Regardless of the circus-like publicity and differing interpretations from researchers, the fossil itself is certainly a gem.

It is "the most completely preserved fossil primate that has ever been found," said paleontologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the research. "It preserves things that are almost never preserved - stomach contents, tissues, hair. That only happens in very unique circumstances."

In this case, the unique circumstance is the Messel Shale Pit, a world-renowned fossil source in Germany about 25 miles southeast of Frankfurt.

Animals that fell into the volcanic lake sank to the bottom and lay virtually undisturbed until the present. The cocktail of minerals in the water and sediment contributed to preservation.

The fossil is formally called Darwinius masillae but nicknamed Ida after Hurum's daughter.