Wednesday, 20 May 2009


Yesterday, with some fanfare, the fossil primate Darwinius masillae was displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. There has been a great deal of hype about this fossil, which, given it was actually found in 1983, seems a little contrived. It's a very important fossil, without doubt, but a lot more study needs to be done before it quite lives up to its billing. It had been in a private collection until is was bought by the univeristy of Oslo a couple of years ago.

The site it came from is a famous fossil locality - Messel, near Frankfurt in Germany. The Messel pit its home to an oily shale that contains fossils preserved with incredible detail. The deposits are Eocene, and are roughly 46 to 50 million years old. Aside from thousands of fish, the site has yielded birds, crocodiles, insects and a number of different mammals - bats, mice, horses, pangolins and more. Fur, feathers, scales are all beautifully preserved, but the shale is so delicate that fossils are usually given some form of supportive backing. I currently have a fish that is set in a sort of fibre glass sheet. The Messel pit was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-90s.

Ida, as she's been called, was at first thought to be a relative of lemurs, but had a number of simian characteristics, leading some to trumpet her as a 'missing link' fossil in the human lineage. The presence of opposable thumbs, fingernails and dental details suggest she lies somewhere around the division between prosimians (modern lemurs, bushbabies, etc) and simians (higher primates, like Old World monkeys, apes and you). So while she might not be a direct human ancestor, she's likely to be a close cousin to our ancestral monkeyman.

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