A 47 million-year-old monkey fossil which hung for decades in obscurity on the wall of a collector may be the missing link between ancient primates and modern man, anthropologists said.
Called Ida and measuring just 21 inches tall, the fossil was unearthed in a German quarry in the 1980s and only recently recognized as a Darwinian landmark. A leading paleontologist said the lemur's features suggest it could be the common ancestor of all later monkeys, apes and humans, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Philip Gingerich, president-elect of the Paleontological Society in the U.S., co-wrote a paper detailing the discovery's significance that will be published next week in Public Library of Science, a peer-reviewed, online journal.
"This discovery brings a forgotten group into focus as a possible ancestor of higher primates," said Gingerich, a professor of paleontology at the University of Michigan.
Anthropologists have long suspected humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. Two ape-like creatures walked the Earth 50 million years ago, the tarsidae and the adapidae, a precursor of today's lemurs in Madagascar. There has been debate over which one gave rise to monkeys, apes and humans. The latest discovery indicates that the adapid may be the ancestor of not only lemurs, but also humans.
The skeleton will be unveiled at New York City's American Museum of Natural History next Tuesday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an international team involved in the discovery.
Gingerich said he had twice examined the adapid skeleton, which was "a complete, spectacular fossil." The completeness of the preserved skeleton is crucial, because most previously found fossils of ancient primates were small finds, such as teeth and jawbones.
It was found by amateur fossil hunters more than 20 years ago in the Messel Shale Pit, a quarry near Frankfurt, Germany. The pit has long been a popular fossil hunting ground and has turned up many specimens from from the middle Eocene epoch, some 50 million years ago.
It was cleaned and set in a polyester resin and hung on a German collector's wall for two decades, according to Sky News. The owner did not grasp the fossil's importance, but professor Jorn Hurum, of Norway's National History Museum, instantly recognized the significance of what he calls "the most beautiful fossil worldwide." He negotiated to buy the fossil for a reported $1 million and then led a team that studied it secretly for two years.
Gingerich said scientists inspected the fossil with a sophisticated X-ray technique that can provide detailed, cross-sectional views.