The revealing last month of Ida, the almost complete, and remarkably preserved skeleton of an early anthropoid ape, is a remarkable discovery, and will shed important light on the evolutionary roots of monkeys, apes and humans.
However, Ida was unearthed from a private collection where the full significance of the fossil was not able to be appreciated by academics. Hidden from the world for quarter of a century, and revealed to the world after a deal in a Hamburg bar involving a $1 million fee, Ida’s finder had been aware of her enormous importance but had kept the fossil in his private collection, hidden from view.
Whilst the importance of the discovery of Ida cannot be denied, she has also awakened the public to the world of private fossil collections. In this international business, fossils can change hands for enormous sums, and thus these collectors may often be motivated by the money that they can earn for them, rather than the search for understanding about the origins of our species. The details of fossils in private collections are also not generally published in academic journals, meaning that they cannot be considered by experts in the search for new understanding.
As a palaeontologist, the holy grail is finding something that provides a missing link, bringing something new to science. A fossil such as Ida, that is spectacularly well preserved, can open a new window into the past, showing us a piece of the evolutionary jigsaw that was previously missing. It is essential that we continue to make new discoveries, finding more and more pieces of this jigsaw.
However, we also need to encourage openness and the sharing of information amongst the fossil hunting community, to ensure that crucial pieces of our history are not lost. We must encourage a curiosity about delving deep into the past to seek answers about who we are and where we came from.
People often think that you need to travel abroad to find prehistoric bones, but some spectacular discoveries have also been made closer to home. I recently found the leg bone of a Sauropod dinosaur (called a Cetiosaur) which was nearly two metres long, at a site near Fairford in Gloucestershire. I have also unearthed a complete head of a woolly mammoth just north of Swindon, only the second to be found in the UK. Amateur fossil hunters can also make incredible finds on their first forays into the field. During an organised fossil hunt last year a five year old girl discovered the vertebra of a giant Ice Age woolly rhinoceros. I hope that discoveries like this can spawn a life-long passion.
This is why I am supporting the "Science: So what? So everything" campaign, which aims to bring to life the science behind everything, including the history of our earth and humanity itself. Getting more people out there, uncovering secrets from the past and holding a link to our ancestry in their hands, is a sure way to develop a passion for fossil hunting in a new generation. But it is important that we make sure that our discoveries are shared, not locked away from public view.
Neville is a palaeontologist for the STFC and NERC, and is supporting the "Science: So What? So Everything" campaign which aims to encourage people to understand the science behind different aspects of their lives. For more information on the campaign visit www.direct.gov.uk/sciencesowhat .