Saturday, 30 May 2009

Science and Nature Express Doubts About Grand Aunt Ida

Grand Aunt Ida seems to be the great grandmother of lemurs but not of humans. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

Leading science publications Nature and Science have taken a surprisingly critical approach to Grand Aunt Ida who has recently been basking in the limelight.

The lemur fossil found in Germany is remarkably well preserved. Ida was dubbed Darwinius massillae in honour of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary. The latter part of the name comes from Messel, the place where her remains were found.

The popular press claimed Ida was the link that had long been missing between humans and apes. For instance, BBC’s webpages called her our earliest ancestor.

However, many leading evolution researchers think Ida has little if anything to do with human origins and development. A Nature editorial calls Ida a hyped-up fossil find. “In normal circumstances, the interpretation of the specimen given in the paper (J. L. Franzen et al. PLoS ONE 4, e5723; 2009) would have been no more contentious than that of any other fossil primate, and a good deal less so than some.”

Nature suggests that Ida has “little to do with human ancestry”. Ann Gibbons, writing in the journal Science, concurs: “Many of the leading scientists who study primate evolution don't think Ida lives up to her billing as a human ancestor; most think she's a relative of lemurs instead.”

She goes on to say, “Some worry that the publicity framing Ida as a human ancestor will backfire as her true identity and lowly origins are revealed.”

Even before Franzen et al. submitted their paper to PLoS ONE, a TV-documentary and a book were in the works. Although Ida was not presented as a human ancestor in the original paper, the words The Link, used in both the documentary and the book, gave the general public a misleading view of the lemur fossil.

It seems that Ida is just a lemur’s great aunt and no amount of hype will be able to change her into a monkey’s aunt.

Perhaps Ida says more about what some people want to hear than what an old lemur fossil represents. In a time when bread might be becoming scarce, the public will still want their circuses.


Gibbons, Ann. 2009.Celebrity Fossil Primate: Missing Link or Weak Link? Science 324: 5931, 1124-1125. (29 May)

Nature. 2009. Media frenzy. (Editorial). Nature 459: 7246, 484 (28 May. 2009).