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The mayor of New York City was at the news conference on May 19, 2009. The event was accompanied too by the showing of a special documentary film on TV, publication of a book on the topic and the unveiling of an interactive website. What could the occasion be? One of the individuals involved, Jorn Hurun of Norway, declared: “Any pop band is doing the same thing. Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

The excitement involved the unveiling of a fossil found in 1983 in the Messel Shale Pit in Germany. This disused quarry, a mile-wide crater near Frankfurt, contains significant remains of a tropical rain forest including many fossils such as ostriches and giant mice. For more than 20 years the anonymous discoverer of this fossil kept its existence a secret. Two years ago, the collector sold it (through a dealer) to Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Hurum, who paid over one million dollars for it on behalf of the University of Oslo.

What Dr. Hurun purchased was a fossil of a young female lemur, close to 2 feet long (58 cm) including long tail. It is 95% complete with soft body outline indicated by impressions of fur, and her last meal inside. There are no other primate fossils anywhere of comparable quality. Moreover most lemur fossils are known from Madagascar. One has been found in Pakistan and now this one from Germany.

This fossil lacks two features typical of extant lemurs(a fused row of teeth in mid lower jaw to help groom fur, and a grooming claw on her second toe), but otherwise it is much like the lemurs we know today. Based on the missing characteristics however, a team of scientists declared it to be perhaps the ancestor of all primates: that includes the lemurs on the one hand and the rest of the primates (including apes, monkeys and tarsiers) on the other hand. They would include humans in the latter group too. The fossil has no traits unique to the rest of primates group.

The statements by some of the big name experts could scarcely have been more dramatic. Jorn Hurum declared to be the “holy grail and lost ark of archaeology.” British naturalist Sir David Attenborough called it the “missing link”. German paleontologist Jens Franzen called the specimen the “eighth wonder of the world” and American Philip Gingerich likened it to the “rosetta stone,” the discovery of which enabled experts to decode ancient hieroglyphics.

The scientific paper named the creature Darwinius masillae. It has no known ancestors. Although the specimen is remarkable, many experts question the significance attributed to this fossil. The scientists involved seem to have allowed vested financial interests to overcome good sense. The fame of a big discovery such as an evolutionary ancestor represents future large research grants and other income. Maybe in this case the public will be less easily impressed.


Moxie
June 2009

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