Rival fossil challenges 'missing link'

Ganlea has more claim to be common primate ancestor than Ida, say scientists

She had a website devoted to her, a film made about her, a book written on her, and even a Google-page dedication of her own. But Ida the fossil primate who was supposed to be the missing link between man and the rest of the animal kingdom has been dethroned by another fossil with far better claims to the crown.

When Ida, the 47-million-year-old fossil of an early primate, was unveiled to the public in May there was near-hysteria about the discovery of the "missing link" in the ancestry of man, carefully choreographed by the publicity machine of the film company behind a television documentary sold to the BBC and the publishers of a book.

Ida, unearthed in a shale pit in Germany, was perfectly preserved right down to her opposable thumb, the fur on her back and the contents of her stomach, but now another team of scientists has questioned her right to be named as the fossil ancestor that links humans to all other animals.

Chris Beard, a palaeontologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, believes that he and his team have found a far better candidate in the shape of a primate fossil found in Burma which he said is much more likely than Ida to be the common ancestor of all monkeys, apes and humans.

Called Ganlea megacanina, the new fossil is about 38 million years old and even though the scientists only have its teeth and a fragment of its jawbone they are convinced that both its anatomical features and its lifestyle are those of an "anthropoid" primate, the group of primates that split away from the other lemur-like primates to evolve into monkeys, apes and humans.

"Ida is a complete fossil, and that in many ways is its calling card. We have an incomplete fossil of Ganlea but even though it is not complete, its anatomy is far more compelling for it to be the ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans than it is for Ida to be the ancestor," Dr Beard said.

"As far as we can tell, not only is Ganlea an anthropoid, it is a fairly advanced anthropoid, which is not what you can say about Ida," he said.

A study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society shows Ganlea's large canine tooth has abrasions that could only have come about by prying open the hard exterior of tough tropical fruits in order to eat the seeds inside, an anthropoid-like behaviour seen today in South American monkeys. It has never been documented in non-anthropoid primates such as lemurs, Dr Beard said.

Other elements of its jawbone, along with anatomical features possessed by Ganlea's close Asian relatives, suggest that it belonged to the ultimate ancestral group of all anthropoids, some of which must have migrated to Africa to become the ape-like ancestors of man.

Ida, meanwhile, remains an oddity at the far end of the primate family tree, about as far away from man's ancestors as you can get, Dr Beard said. "Ida is a good-looking fossil but it was the victim of incredible marketing. It is not all that it was cracked up to be. I've never seen such hyperbole surrounding a primate fossil as the one that came with Ida – and I'm not alone in thinking that," he said.

Meet the ancestor: Ida 'over-hyped'

* Although not a direct human ancestor, Ida is still an important fossil. The most amazing aspect of Ida is her near-miraculous state of preservation – about 95 per cent of her skeleton is complete.

* She lacked a penis bone, making her unmistakably female, and her thumb and fingers were opposable which meant that she could climb and pick berries and fruit.

* Ida had a distinctive ankle bone and she lacked a "toothcomb", a fused row of teeth in the middle of the lower jaw, and a "toilet claw" used for grooming – attributes of lemurs but not monkeys.

* Her fingertips end in nails rather than claws, like monkeys, and her eye sockets are large and forward-pointing which would have given her good 3-D, binocular vision. Her large eyes would have been useful for night-time foraging in a nocturnal lifestyle.

* X-ray scans of the fossil showed that Ida had suffered a fractured wrist bone that was in the process of healing, an injury that may have led to her falling off a branch and into the lake where she was preserved in sediment.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links