Scientists unveil ancient fossil

NEW YORK Wed May 20, 2009 2:20am BST

1 of 8. Dr. Jorn Hurum of the Museum of Natural History and the University of Oslo speaks next to a slide of a 47 million year old primate fossil known as 'Ida' at the Museum of Natural History May 19, 2009, during a news conference where the find was unveiled. Scientists from the University of Oslo in Norway and the Senckenberg Research institute revealed the female specimen said to be the most complete fossil primate ever found.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Scientists on Tuesday unveiled the well preserved fossilized remains found in Germany of a primate from 47 million years ago that may have been a close relative of the common ancestor of monkeys, apes and people.

It is the most complete fossil primate ever found, only missing part of one leg below the knee, and could shed light on an early stage of primate evolution, the scientists said.

Norwegian palaeontologist Jorn Hurum, who led a team of scientists who analysed the fossil in the past two years, said it may resemble one of the earliest ancestors of humans but was not likely to have been a direct ancestor.

"We are not dealing with our grand- grand- grand- grandmother but perhaps our grand- grand- grand- aunt," Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt told reporters at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

The primate, which was two feet from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, was a female that died before its first birthday, Hurum said. It was called Darwinius masillae in honour of Charles Darwin, who advanced the theory of evolution, but nicknamed Ida.

The fossil was found by an amateur collector in 1983 in the world heritage listed Messel pit, a disused quarry southeast of Frankfurt where many fossils have been found.

Ida was kept in a private collection until it was offered for sale to Hurum and the University of Oslo in 2006.

The direct ancestors of humans "must have looked something like" Ida, Hurum said.

"This is the only clue we've got to what they looked like," he said. "But being cautious as scientists ... we are of course not stating that this is our direct ancestor. That's too much," Hurum added. "It's really, really hard to pinpoint who gave rise to humans at that point, but this is as good as it gets."

Ida is linked to humans by the talus bone in her ankle which is the same shape. Scientists also said her opposable big toes and nails, not claws, confirmed she was a primate.

Scientists were able to analyse the gut contents of Ida, which showed it ate seeds and leaves.

The findings were published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Storey)

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