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Some scientists say Ida is the missing link
Question of the Day
The missing link is missing no longer, apparently. And her name is Ida.
Scientists announced Tuesday that a diminutive, 47-million-year-old female skeleton is the true bridge between mankind and mammals. The discovery would "rewrite history," they said - an idea that was contested by creationists and pounced upon by the press.
Ida is already the star of her own book and full-length movie, and her pedigree is on parade.
"This fossil is so complete. Everything is there. It's unheard of in the primate record at all. You have to get to human burial to see something that's this complete," said Jorn Hurum, a paleontologist with the University of Oslo who led the research.
"This fossil will probably be pictured in all the textbooks for the next 100 years. This is the first link to all humans - truly a fossil that links world heritage," he said.
His peers were equally enthusiastic over the bones, discovered in a German quarry and so detailed that the creature's last meal was still evident, along with impressions of skin and hair.
"It's really a kind of Rosetta Stone," said Philip Gingerich, a paleontologist with the University of Michigan.
Ida, whose formal name is Darwinius Masillae, is also a major media event.
There's a new book, "The Link," being published Wednesday. A two-hour, high-definition movie of the same name will premiere on the BBC, the History Channel and other networks Monday. "Revealing the Link," a new interactive Web site, explains all things Ida; a replica skeleton is destined for New York's Museum of Natural History as well.
But not everyone shares in the Ida adulation.
"This is an incredible piece of hype to popularize a movie and a book. It's hard to believe that this story took off, but the media picked up on very emotional claims about the 'missing link.' It's created good publicity," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum.
"What was wrong with all the other fossils over the years? Why get so excited with this one?" he asked.
"This is a noteworthy fossil find because it's so complete. But comparing it to the Rosetta Stone is quite an exaggeration," said David DeWitt, director of Creation Studies at Liberty University.
"They say 'we have proof' of the missing link. A few years later, they'll claim they have proof all over again. The important question is this: Where did the genetic information come from that produced that skeleton in the first place? It's not random chance," Mr. DeWitt said.
A 2006 Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans believe God guided creation in "some capacity" - with 46 percent thinking God created man in his present form sometime in the past 10,000 years, while 36 percent say man developed over millions of years from lesser life forms, but God guided the process.
Thirteen percent of Americans think mankind evolved with no divine intervention.
Ida has seniority as a specimen - she is 20 times older than other fossils linked to human evolution. But the skeleton, 3 feet long including a tail, has also been part of a research tug-of-war for over two decades.
The specimen was discovered in the quarry in 1983 by amateur fossil hunters who split the bones apart, to be sold in two pieces. The smaller piece was purchased by a museum in Wyoming. The Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo eventually acquired the larger specimen, and it has been the centerpiece of Mr. Hurum's research for two years.
He compared Ida to "an unknown Rembrandt," explaining that forward-facing eyes, opposing big toes; short face and other features make her part of the anthropoid branch of mammals that include monkeys, apes and humans.
"She has a small, compact body, like us," Mr. Hurum said.
Earth at the time was a "vast jungle" that already hosted early horses, bats and primates. Ida was not long-lived. She was 9 months old when she died, her belly full of fruits, seeds and leaves.
An X-ray revealed she had a broken wrist that could have contributed to an early death, Mr. Hurum said. He also speculated that Ida drowned in the volcanic Messel Lake, which is now the quarry, after having been overcome by carbon monoxide on the water's surface.
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