Darwin Can Finally R.I.P.
One swampy day in the late Eocene, a lemur-like primate named Ida feasted on a vegetarian lunch. Had she known this meal was to be her last, perhaps she would have sprung for the insect platter, or even the small-vertebrae sampler. But she didn't. She ate her assorted fruits and leaves and was promptly engulfed in a cloud of volcanic toxins. She sank into a grave of molten lava, where she squatted unnoticed in the Messel Pit for 47 million years.
Until last month.
On May 19, Paleoanthropologists Jorn Hurum and Jens Frazen finally went public with their "Missing Link," a juvenile anthropoid thought to fill a void in one of evolution's darkest ages. Ida's remarkable preservation at a pinnacle stage of her development sheds critical light upon the paleobiology of Eocene primates.
After looting around Ida's fossilized remains in secret for the better half of two years, the team projects this discovery to be "the eighth wonder of the world, the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail."
And so, in the prime of her suspended adolescence, Ida became a star. So far she's harnessed a book deal and the title role in an upcoming BBC documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Not bad for an arboreal quadruped her age.
But while many scientists remain smitten with Ida, critical rumblings claim her marketing campaign to be overblown. Paleontologists are quick to remind us that to chart human lineage is to encounter vast stretches of grayness, rendering an absolute conclusion nearly impossible.
This has lead many researchers to speculate that while Ida may not be a direct link to higher primates, she could more closely be viewed as modern mankind's great, great, great, great aunt.. The kind of distant relative you see once, maybe twice a year who knows very little about you other than the fact that when you were a kid, you had a thing for horses.
Or in the case of Aunt Ida, opposable thumbs.
For Paleontologists, Ida's proto-primate characteristics provide crucial evolutionary evidence. Such transitory traits include the presence of nails instead of claws, opposable digits for proficient gripping and climbing, flexible forearms, a shortened face, a larger relative brain size, and adequate stereoscopic vision. Such forward-facing eyes caused her fields of vision to overlap, enabling greater distance judgment and three-dimensional sight.
Ida's full name, Darwinius massillae, was conceived as a 200th birthday present to Charles Darwin, a theorist of such groundbreaking insight that he has been immortalized in zoological nomenclature no less than 1,350 times. The special bond between Ida and her nephew Darwin, however, is indisputable.
When his research went to print in 1859, Darwin agonized over colossal gaps in the fossil record, calling it "the most obvious and gravest objection" that could be urged against his theory. The presence of partially developed primate traits in this remarkable fossil further legitimize Darwin's theory of descent.
Thanks to Ida, Darwin can finally rest in peace, or as peacefully as an agnostic naturalist can rest with Sir Isaac Newton two burial plots over