Backgrounder to Ida fossil
By James Randerson and Ed Pilkington
NEW YORK: Anonymous collector kept fossil in private for quarter of a century; purchase of specimen with $1m price tag was huge gamble for scientist (see other IDA files)
Hunched around a table at a vodka bar in Hamburg, Jorn Hurum, a palaeontologist, was about to make the scientific gamble of his life. Thomas Perner, a fossil dealer whom he knew well, had insisted they met; he had something very special to show him.
Looking nervously over his shoulder for prying glances, Perner put three photographs of a fossil on the bar table. "My heart started beating extremely fast," said Hurum. "I knew that the dealer had a world sensation in his hands. I could not sleep for two nights."
Rumours had been flying around for years in the palaeontological community about a spectacular primate fossil specimen. Now Hurum was one of the first people in the world to see it.
Like a real-life Indiana Jones, his first thought was how he could ensure the fossil was saved for scientific study rather be lost to a private collection. "I was just thinking about how to get this to an official museum so that it could be described for science."
But to do that he would have to take the biggest gamble of his career. On the strength of the potential he saw in those photos he would have to find the $1m asking price for the specimen or risk it going underground again. "They were very high stakes," said his close colleague at the University of Oslo and long-time friend, Prof David Bruton. "He took a terrible risk."
Yesterday, after two years of painstaking, secret scientific work that required an internationally renowned team to invent techniques to study the fossil, the results of Hurum's wager were made public.
The fossil was unveiled to the world amid a blaze of publicity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was shown behind a glass box, its elongated back and slinking tail curved like a new moon.
Several groups had scrambled to attach their names to the find, from Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, who was photographed beside the fossil with his arm round a schoolgirl, to the Norwegian minister of higher education, who pledged $350,000 of government money to the project. The publishers Little Brown gave a speech, having brought out a book on the discovery in deepest secrecy and the record time of just four months.
At the centre of events was Hurum. He declared that the find, named Ida, was "the most complete fossil before human burial". He showed pictures of the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone, making the point about the importance of this discovery, and he called it the Holy Grail of palaeontology. Another speaker alluded to the moon landings.
The story of the primate fossil began in the summer of 1983 in Germany. An anonymous collector, accompanied by Perner, was fossil hunting at the Messel pit, a shale quarry near Darmstadt, Germany. The site has yielded an amazing array of exquisitely preserved fossils, including more than 60 pygmy horses, some of which were pregnant, eight species of crocodile, more than 1,000 bats, and insects with the colours on their wings still visible.
What happened after the mystery collector stumbled on Ida at the bottom of Turtle Hill remains unknown. But what is clear is that he knew he had something very special. He prepared the fossil meticulously and with some skill (if he had not the layers of oil shale in which it was found would have disintegrated). He added it to his private collection and, it seems, showed it to no one. "This is typical for collectors," said Hurum. He said he knew collectors who kept their best specimens hidden even from others who shared their passion. "It is something about owning a part of history, that you know when you show it to people it will change things ... It is a powerful feeling to have something ... nobody knows about."
Ida stayed hidden for more than 20 years, though there were hints of its existence. "There were rumours that there was a beautiful primate on the way. But none of the scientists had seen it," said Jorg Habersetzer, an expert in x-ray analysis of fossils, based at the Senckenberg museum, in Frankfurt, who is a co-author with Hurum of the paper on Ida.
The rock holding the impression of the fossil did come to light and was sold to a private museum in Wyoming in 2007. But that specimen had been defaced by a forger and was incorrectly identified by scientists as a different species.
Eventually the collector decided to sell the fossil and approached Perner. He first went to the Senckenberg museum and others in Germany which had large collections of Messel fossils. The Senckenberg could see it was a spectacular find, but Ida's significance for human evolution was not then clear, and the museum could not afford it.
That's when Perner made his vodka-bar pitch to Hurum. "You need to build up a relationship with a dealer before you even see specimens like this," said Hurum, "It is the same really as the art business. You kill the price of paintings if you put them on display. The fewer people have seen the specimen, the more valuable it is for collectors."
Hurum convinced his university to stump up half the price based only on the photographs and a 10-minute inspection of the fossil to check it was not an obvious fake. Ringing in his ears as he did this, no doubt, were the words of one senior colleague in the palaeontological world: Wighart von Koenigswald, at the University of Bonn, had warned him that a lot of good fakes of Messel specimens were in circulation. "His advice was to 'be extremely careful'," Hurum said.
Only after months of work using x-ray analysis was it possible to confirm finally that the Ida specimen was not a professional counterfeit. That led the university to release the rest of the funds to Perner.
Hurum admits he was taking a huge punt. He could not be sure whether Ida was a human ancestor or not. "I gambled that maybe it was something even more spectacular than a lemur ... really it would have been quite an expensive lemur."
Ida is special because of where she seems to fit into our ancestral family tree and because of her state of preservation. Most discovered human ancestor fossils are incomplete. Palaeontologists have to be content with a single tooth or a battered jawbone, each item probably separated by millions of years. Even celebrated finds that have had a huge impact on our understanding of human evolution have been far less complete. The Ethiopian fossil named Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) which dates from 3.2m years ago, is only 40% complete, for instance. Constructing the primate evolutionary story from available fossil evidence is a bit like trying to work out the plot of Hamlet using just a few randomly selected passages.
Ida is different. Her skeleton is 95% complete. There is an outline of fur, even individual hairs. In her stomach were remains scientists could analyse - a last vegetarian snack.
Because she is so complete, the scientists who have studied Ida describe her as a "Rosetta stone" for making sense of early primate evolution. "[She is] the eighth wonder of the world," said Jens Franzen, at the Senckenberg, who is another co-author of the paper, describing the fossil in the journal PLoS ONE.
John Fleagle, a professor at Stony Brook University, in New York state, who reviewed the paper for the journal, agrees that the fossil is not a lemur. But Ida's full significance would not be known until other scientists had seen the paper. "That will be sorted out, or at least debated extensively, in the coming years."
The excellent preservation has revealed some fascinating details. "It's caught at a really very interesting moment [in its life] when it has all its baby teeth and is in the process of forming all its permanent teeth," said Holly Smith, an expert in primate development at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who was part of the team. "So you have more information in it than almost any fossil ."
Ida's age when she died, around six to nine months, led to her nickname; Hurum's daughter Ida is six, has her milk teeth, and is at roughly the same stage of physical development as her namesake.
"Ida was at this vulnerable age where you are no longer right with your mother," said Smith, "Just as you leave weaning you are not full grown, but you are on your own."
The fossil's scientific name is Darwinius masillae, in honour of Charles Darwin's 200th anniversary year. The word masilla was the name used by a local monastery in the 9th century for the site of the Messel pit where the fossil was found.
Ida, when she died 47m years ago, was just more than half a metre from tip to tail. As an adult she would have weighed no more than a kilogram, but she was probably at 60% of her adult body weight. She was quite likely nocturnal because the eye holes in her skull are large. The team can also be sure she is female as she does not have a penis bone. Another find from the skeleton suggests she was particularly vulnerable. Franzen noticed that the animal had a broken wrist that had partially healed. The injury did not kill her, but it would most probably have incapacitated her and made it difficult to clamber in the trees.
The team speculate that the injury might have contributed to her death. Perhaps she went to the Messel lake to drink because her poor climbing prevented her getting water from tree hollows in the nearby subtropical forest. At the lake she could have been overpowered by toxic volcanic gases .
So what does the product of Hurum's gamble tell us about our own evolutionary history? The top-notch scientific team that he assembled to study Ida could see at a glance that she was a primate, as opposed to the various other small tree-climbing creatures that inhabited the Messel region at the time. Nails rather than claws on her digits and opposable thumbs and big toes told them that.
Crucially, she was not an early representative of the primate branch that would evolve to be the modern-day lemurs and other related species such as bush babies and lorises. Ida does not have a set of fused teeth in the middle of her bottom jaw called a "tooth comb", or a "grooming claw" on her second toe, both of which are characteristics of the lemurs.
So it seems likely she is on our own primate line, the one that diversified into monkeys, apes and humans shortly after the split with the lemurs.
"This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all the mammals - with cows and sheep, and elephants and anteaters," said Sir David Attenborough, who is narrating a BBC documentary on the find. "The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo."
Hurum said: "This is the first link in human evolution. A find like this is something for all humankind. It tells a part of our evolution that's been hidden so far." His gamble appears to have paid off scientifically. He and the museum could also be catapulted to scientific stardom. Hurum seems keen on that: "This is our Mona Lisa and it will be ... for the next 100 years."
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