Much-Hyped Primate Fossil "Ida" Probably Isn't Our Ancestor

By Eliza Strickland | October 21, 2009 5:44 pm

primate-treeSurprise, surprise. An independent analysis of the primate fossil that was unveiled amid extraordinary hype last May has found significant evidence that the lemur-like creature was not a direct ancestor of humans, after all. The 47-million-year old fossil described in May, which was given the scientific name Darwinius masillae and nicknamed Ida, was announced with unrestrained razzmatazz. She was the “eighth wonder of the world”, “our Mona Lisa” and an evolutionary “Rosetta Stone”, according to the researchers who unveiled her…. She was, they said, the “link” between us and the rest of the animal kingdom [The Guardian].

But Ida, who was the subject of both a book and a TV special that were released at the same time as the scientific paper describing the fossil, failed to wow many evolutionary biologists. Says Erik Seiffert, lead researcher of the new study: ”The suggestion that Ida [was]… specifically related to the higher primates, namely monkeys, apes and humans, was actually a minority view from the start. So it came as a surprise to many of us who are studying primate palaeontology” [BBC News].

Seiffert’s new analysis began with his attempt to identify another fossil primate, Afradapis longicristatus, which he found to be a close relation to Darwinius. The researchers then compared 360 specific anatomical features of 117 living and extinct primate species to draw up a family tree [AP]. The analysis showed that both primates are located on an early twig of the branch that produced lemurs, and far from the lineage that spawned monkeys and great apes [Wired.com]. What’s more, the researchers say that both species have no modern descendants.

The new study, published in Nature, challenges the previous notion that Darwinius was an important part of our lineage. The previous researchers had singled out features in Ida’s face, teeth, and feet that were similar to those seen in higher apes, but the new research team argues that these features may be a result of “convergent evolution.” This involves features arising independently in separate lineages, possibly as a response to similar evolutionary pressures [BBC News].

The researchers involved in the Darwinius work stand by their findings, and still maintain that Ida is a find of spectacular proportions. They also note that the Darwinius skeleton is much more complete than Afradapis and shows additional higher primate characteristics not available for analysis on Seiffert’s fossils, such as bones in the foot [The Scientist].

But Seiffert says that Darwinius played no role in the origins of man, and is much more closely related to lemurs and lorises. Says Seiffert: “The last common ancestor that Darwinius shared with us was the same common ancestor that gave rise to all primates” [The Scientist].

Related Content:
80beats: A Fossil Named Ardi Shakes Up Humanity’s Family Tree
The Loom: Ardipithecus: We Meet at Last
80beats: Did a Strangely Human-Like Primate Give Rise to Monkeys, Apes, and Us?
The Loom: Darwinius: it delivers a pizza, and it lengthens, and it strengthens, and it…

Image: E.R.Seiffert, Stony Brook University

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Human Origins, Living World
  • Argo

    It seems clear that the Ida story is one of an attempt to substitute media hype for scientific integrity. There is an established process by which scientific claims are presented to peer-reviewed journals and ultimately accepted or not by the scientific community based on the available evidence and subsequent attempts at corroborating that evidence. It’s inherently a slow process. Immediate media enthusiasm for an extravagant claim is no substitute.

    On the one hand this kind of thing tends to diminish the perception of science and scientists because it looks like the same kind of shallow hype used by some informercial snake-oil salesmen. On the other hand, the backlash by the scientific community shows that checks and balances do exist to help ensure that the truth ultimately prevails.

    My initial concern was that evolution deniers might jump on this as an example of scientists trying to bend their interpretation of evidence to conform to what they want to find. However, what it really shows is just the opposite: the scientific community holds a high standard of evidence for any claim regardless of whether or not it supports a given theory.

  • Eldon Grupp

    Any scientist has the right to propose a theory. If the media chooses to sensationalize it, that’s fine. But readers and viewers should always keep in mind that theories, however exciting and intriguing, are only theories and are subject to rebuttal by the scientific community at large.

    Ida is a sensational fossil, if for no other reason tha the detail and completeness of its preservation. Whatever the ultimate decision regarding its position in primate evolution, Ida remains an important and exciting find, and that alone makes it worthy of our attention.

    Eldon Grupp

  • sergio

    if dinosaurs are now hummingbirds…
    it is not possible to understand time in our own perception

    Ida could have well been a relative of a common ancestor…
    my focus is not so much our ancestors which link us to the animal kingdom…but what ancestors link is to the human kingdom…

    what catupulted us into being able to mold our own species and the capacity to cause extinction in any species we please? why are wee on top of the food chain?

    when will the fact that human beings evolved to what we are because of psilocybin in our diets amongst other psychadelic entheogens…when will we liberate our future evolution by legalizing such natural substances and reintroducing them into our diet before we start degenarting backwards mentally? WHY DO HUMANS HAVE MORE SEROTONIN THAN ANY OTHER MAMMAL EVEN ELEPHANTS OR TIGERS….

    the mushroom..
    eat it
    trip it
    n shut it

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