Saturday, 23 May 2009

Much Ado About Great Aunt Ida

For a lemur, happiness is finding a long lost Great Aunt. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

The ado about a primate fossil known as Ida brings to mind the media circus surrounding the supposed finding of Jesus’ family tomb in 2007. The similarities are striking. A press conference and maximum publicity before an in-depth examination of the case.

Many serious scientists then protested the by-passing of peer review. Indeed, when they examined the case more closely, they found that the evidence was anything but convincing.

The Ida case is slightly different. While the fossil was introduced to the public at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on May 19th, it also had a research paper written and published in PloS ONE.

However, some scientists suspected that the study was far too superficial. They maintained that Science or Nature, for instance, would not have published such a paper. New Scientist also suspected that the ”hoopla” was ”unbridled”.

Sometimes, when there is a rush to publish a book and produce a TV documentary, money might be a more pertinent criterion than careful research.

Ida, who measures a metre or over three feet including the long tail, was named Darwinius massillae in honour of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary.

A private collector found the bones in 1983 in Messel, Germany. But it was not until Jörn Hurum, a paleontologist at the Oslo Natural History Museum obtained the remains of Ida that the era of Great Aunt speculation began in earnest.

There is a tendency in Israel, for instance, to be suspicious of finds bought from private collectors. China has had her share of fossil scandals, also. While not all collectors are crooks, we should not throw caution to the winds, either.

Ida, who is supposed to be 47 million years old, is remarkably well preserved: 95 per cent of her earthly remains are present. In contrast, Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), one of the more complete fossils ever found, is only 40 per cent intact. Moreover, even the contents of Great Aunt Ida’s stomach are present.

Ida resembles the lemurs that are still found in Madagascar although she does not have a ”tooth comb” that they use for grooming their fur or a long ”grooming claw”.

The earthly remains of Great Aunt Ida are remarkably intact. Their preservation suggests a rapid catastrophic burial. Seen from a creationist perspective, poor Ida might well have met her end in the same world wide flood that probably also took the life of another icon of evolution – Grandmother Lucy.


Beard, Chris. 2009. Why Ida fossil is not the missing link. New Scientist. (21 May)