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Missing Link Ida: Media Darling

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 20th, 2009


Ida, properly known as Darwinius masillae, is the 47-million-year-old fossil, said to be a critical “missing link” species in primate evolution. As you may have noticed, this little fossil has been all over the news. I’ve gotten so many emails about it, I get it that people want to talk about it.

Would Darwin have cared? Is this more hype than reality?

Unfortunately, I think it may be a moment of mere media madness, drummed up by a bit of scientific marketing driven along by the use, once again, of the word “missing link.” My use of “missing link” in my headline is a jest, to make my point.

“This is the first link to all humans,” said paleontologist Jörn H. Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway, who lead the team that found the fossil. Ida represents “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor.”

Hurm has a very sexy new website, documentary, and book to assist him in his promotional campaign.


The documentary’s host is Sir David Attenborough, here with a lemur. The BBC documentary, Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link will be on BBC1 and History on May 25-26, 2009.


Aegyptopithecus, the “Dawn Ape” is seen as the inheritor of traits perhaps first found in Darwinius masillae.

The Darwinius masillae specimen was excavated by private collectors in 1983 from the Messel Shale Pit, a shale quarry near Darmstadt, Germany, that has yielded many fossils of Eocene life, including other primitive primates.

Hurum said the site was “one of the real treasure troves of paleontology, like the Gobi Desert for dinosaurs.”

“This specimen looks like a really early fossil monkey that belongs to the group that includes us,” said Brian Richmond, a biological anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “[Ida] is one of the important branching points on the evolutionary tree, but it’s not the only branching point.”


I really like what the blogger at “A Primate of Modern Aspect” writes about how one newspaper treated this latest news of a “missing link”: ” A rather annoying graphic shows our new little fossil evolving directly into an ape, skipping all the really interesting and diverse animals in between. Animals like Aegyptopithecus, Eosimias, Proconsul, and Oreopithecus.”

Dr. Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel Pit and a member of the team, described Ida (a bit over the top to the BBC News) as “like the Eighth Wonder of the World,” because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton.

It was information “palaeontologists can normally only dream of,” he said.

In addition, Ida bears “a close resemblance to ourselves” he said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb – like humans and some other primates. But he said some aspects of the teeth indicate she is not a direct ancestor – more of an “aunt” than a “grandmother.”


The fossil has opposable thumbs, similar to humans’, and fingernails instead of claws.

“She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line,” Franzen conceded.

Independent experts are keen to see the new fossil but somewhat skeptical of any claim that it could be “a missing link.”

“I actually don’t think it’s terribly close to the common ancestral line of monkeys, apes and people,” said K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. “I would say it’s about as far away as you can get from that line and still be a primate.”

Rather than a long-ago aunt, “I would say it’s more like a third cousin twice removed,” he said. So it probably resembles ancestral creatures “only in a very peripheral way,” he said.

Beard said scientists already have a fossil from China of about the same age that is widely accepted as coming from monkey-ape-human ancestral line, and it’s much smaller than the new-found fossil and ate a different diet. “They are radically different animals,” he said.

John Fleagle of the State University of New York at Stony Brook said the scientists’ analysis provides only “a pretty weak link” between the new creature and higher primates, called anthropoids, that includes monkeys and man.

“It doesn’t really tell us much about anthropoid origins, quite frankly,” Fleagle said.

Fleagle said the scientists did an “extraordinary” job of extracting detailed information from the fossil. “There’s certainly a lot more information about this individual than probably any other fossil primate that’s ever been recovered,” he said.

Dr. Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to evaluate its significance.

“It’s extremely nice to have a new find and it will be well-studied,” Gee said. But he added that it was not likely to be in the same league as major discoveries such as “Flores man” or feathered dinosaurs.

Indeed.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


29 Responses to “Missing Link Ida: Media Darling”

  1. MountDesertIslander responds:

    As are the majority of most scientific announcements in the last two decades, this is all hype and conjecture as opposed to solid investigative work. There’s an agenda at work here.

    This “discovery” coupled with Darwin’s 200th and the TV special coming next week seem just a little suspicious; no?

    In 10 years they will proclaim this beast a dead end.

  2. Uriah responds:

    I think it’s an important discovery, but any new species that fills out our knowledge of the fossil record is important.

    Anybody who is still arguing the efficacy of Evolutionary Theory is behind the times, and waging a cultural war, anyway. This fossil certainly won’t quell that nonsensical debate.

    However, is it a bit of hype and grandstanding? Of course it is – what isn’t these days? Hype and media grandstanding have become the way that any group with an agenda can segue their message and/or cause into the mainstream public discourse.

    If these researchers aren’t trying to upset the creationist’s apple-cart (which they might be trying to do) they are certainly trying to get their name out there for grant purposes. Everything in science has become a capitalist venture, a marketing scheme, and – largely and sadly – a grab for the media spotlight.

    However, that’s more an indictment of our perception of cultural importance than it is science itself.

  3. Matt_J responds:

    My wife works for Barnes & Noble. They had boxes of this guy’s book sitting in the back room. There was explicit instructions to not open the box before May 20th, because on May 19th, there would be “a major announcement” that would “radically change the way we think of human evolution forever!”

    So, there you have it. One of the reasons for the hype is drive up sales of the book. Dragging evolution versus creationism into the mix is just an attempt to pour fuel on the fire.

    Personally, I read the article and shrugged. Hooray. We found an ancient primate. We’ve pretty much filled in the human ancestry family tree. As far as excitement goes, it was pretty much ‘meh’ on the scale in my opinion.

    I think Henry Gee (quoted at the end of the article above) was also the one who pointed out in the article I read that “any gap in the fossil record is a ‘missing link’.” Well put.

  4. maeko responds:

    Yeah, Ida isn’t doin’ it for me. Jörn H. Hurum can go sell crazy somewhere else. All stocked up here.

  5. flame821 responds:

    Another reason could be funding. Dr Hurum made a statement that ‘this is what athletes do, this is what musicians do, we need to start thinking along those same lines.’

    Considering the lack of funding most people in the science fields are dealing with (and the fact that there is cross marketing with History channel, books, etc). He may simply be standing by his own words and be trying to get both revenue and excitement from the masses. To be honest I’m surprised no one did this with the intact baby mammoth (san’s a Nat Geo special and cover).

    It may not be ‘good’ science but I’m afraid that in today’s world we may need to make a big splash first and then work on the actual science later as a way for our research facilities to survive.

  6. planettom responds:

    I too believe it is over-hyped, drummed up quite a bit. When is a monkey, just a monkey? That’s all this is, a monkey. A great specimen, but just a monkey.

  7. DWA responds:

    OK, piling on:

    ———————————————————-
    The unveiling, at New York’s Museum of Natural History, was promoted by a press release for the cable TV show History, which called it a “revolutionary scientific find that will change everything.”

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among the speakers at the news conference, called it an “astonishing breakthrough.”

    The story of the fossil find will be shown on History, which is owned by A&E Television Networks. A book also will be published.

    Hurum saw nothing wrong with the heavy publicity which preceded the research’s publication Tuesday in the scientific journal PLOS (Public Library of Science) One.

    “That’s part of getting science out to the public, to get attention. I don’t think that’s so wrong,” Hurum said.

    ————————————————-

    And we wonder why the public is misinformed.

    When the MAYOR OF NEW YORK! weighs in, man, I’m convinced. (I’m trying to figure out what “astonished” him. “A MONKEY!!!! Related to ME…????”) Tack on A&E (Science! That’s Entertainment! tm), and I’m already shopping for my “Ida Changes Everything” T-shirt. OK, wait, Cecil! Another idea! “If Ida Known This Sooner, It Woulda Made a Monkey Outta Me.” CUT! PRINT! THAT IS A TAKE!

    Shoot, it’s not even a grownup, apparently! Just how does Hurum know that this is “the first link to all humans”? I’m not even a scientist; and I know that is one heck of a moving target, that “first link.”

    Looks like a monkey to me. Missing link? Sure, as the man up there said. Every new fossil find is one, after all.

    Won’t we feel stupid, when the sasquatch and yeti are confirmed, that we spent all the champagne money on some monkey. Hey, you know I had to toss that in there.

    Anybody notice the header on Google today…? Have a look. They’re getting kickbacks too!

  8. shumway10973 responds:

    forgive me, but doesn’t it look like any other monkey out there even today? There is no way to “prove” that this is the first primate (which it would have to be to be “This is the first link to all humans”). And for those who think the war between evolution and creationism is over…no. Even if most of the creationists just stopped arguing, there are those on the evolutionary side (and yes, waaayyy behind the times) that love to stir things up. Remember folks, those with the title “scientist” or “anthropologist” or “archaeologist” or… they have to eat too. That takes money. Money comes with grants or backers. The sources want results. Therefore we have had many “GREAT DISCOVERIES” in the name of evolution that later we find were nothing at all, but the people who found them are famous and/or at least fed. Sorry, Loren, if this isn’t what you really wanted in a blog.

  9. Viergacht responds:

    Of course Darwin would have cared!

    I notice several commenters here are so intent on winning the internet prize for sarcasm they haven’t even bothered to read the paper on the fossil. For example, DWA – the fact that this is a subadult means she shows a mixture of juvenile and adult teeth, making her a bit of a two for one special.

    Blame the ‘hype’ on the media and it’s silly insistence on the phrase ‘missing link’. ALL fossils are pieces of the puzzle. Ida happens to be a particularly well preserved early primate and shows some of the earliest anatomical traits of advanced primates, which makes her important (although the surprising lack of a cladistic analysis in the paper obfuscates this somewhat). She’s ancestral to humans, sure, but also to apes and monkeys. No matter who profits on this, she would be important no matter what.

    Is hype really so bad, though? The public is so apathetic about science news in general that I don’t think a little bombast to get attention is a terrible thing. It would be nice if there was a little more substance to the news stories but that’s probably too much to ask.

  10. cryptidsrus responds:

    DWA:
    I do agree that Hurum IS engaging in some mighty big “jump the gun” mentality.

    I also agree with MountDesertIslander that there seems to be some ulterior motive for all of this. My two cents: unproven evidence that was massively, obscenely overrhyped.

    And Uriah: The debate is NOT over. To you maybe, but not for everyone.

  11. MattBille responds:

    The fossil’s importance is almost certainly overhyped, but we can’t be sure yet just how overhyped. It gets everyone’s attention simply by being a beautifully preserved ancestral primate. How important it is will only emerge over time.
    The whole “missing link” notion is silly, given that evolution is messy: nothing as complex as the evolution of any living mammal species (like H. sapiens) even remotely resembles a straight line where clear links can be plugged in. The new fossil is another piece of a mosiac, another twist in a branch, whatever metaphor you like to use.
    Regardless of hype, though, the preservation of so many details is likely to make this fossil a very helpful data point as the study of primate evolution chugs along.

  12. Andrew Minnesota responds:

    I’d rather see hype over this rather than a Bigfoot costume in a freezer…

    Yes it is probably being over dramatized. But this does seem to be a good find. Hopefully it will answer some questions and fill in some gaps, no doubt creating some new questions in the process. This isn’t the end all be all find but that doesn’t mean it’s not new and exciting.

    And yes trying to drum up lots of hype about it doesn’t really put this in a good light. It’s too bad that there is so much focus and money thrown at celebrities and athletes while researchers and scientists have to throw a publicity stunt to get more than a blip (if that) in the news.

  13. DWA responds:

    Viergacht: who’s being sarcastic? Oh, me.

    Who deserves it? Well, I think we could spread it around a lot of …well, I just did that. (The MAYOR of NEW YORK!?!?!?)

    This is Major Gumby Science, as in, lotta stretchin’ going on here. On that website we’re told that Ida has a short face like ours, not long like a lemur’s. Huh? That’s a long face…that they’re pointing to even as they tell me that! I’d think short-faced bear if it weren’t attached to that skeleton. (Short face. For a bear.)

    (The MAYOR of NEW YORK?!?!?! Oh I didn’t get sarcastic enough there.)

    Scientific findings are sexy enough – well, OK, you get what I mean – without exaggerating what they mean in order to sell stuff. (Like stacks of books, waiting in the back room. Sheesh.)

    You don’t do what’s being done here because the public is apathetic. You don’t talk down to the audience; you make the audience listen up. Bad science could make an apathetic public, pretty durn quick.

  14. ARO responds:

    Looks like a rat to me lol.

  15. red_pill_junkie responds:

    Glad they unearthed this cool new fossil.

    Now if only we could bury the term ‘missing link’;-)

  16. korollocke responds:

    There have been a few fossils turn up lately with the term missing link attached. The seal find comes to mind. But really for me the great news was the discovery of a healthy population of once thought extinct right whales. But Darwin said himself the problem with his theory were missing links in the evolutionary chain, glad to see some more fossils discovered to expand our understanding, hype or not.

  17. MountDesertIslander responds:

    Just for a moment considering the term missing link.

    I was always under the impression that the missing link that the Darwinians were looking for was the link between Neanderthal man and Modern Man. When Neanderthals were determined to be on a different branch of the tree the search became how to graft Cro-Mag non onto the procession of man graph.

    To go back to the first rung of the ladder and point to a transitional mammal as the missing link seems to be changing the rules of the game and proclaiming victory. I’d be more interested in how the jump from Homo-Habilis was made to Cro-Mag non.

    I wonder if Old Aunt Ida had a savings account. Imagine what compound interest could have done for her in the last 47 million years. Hey, maybe it will pay to adopt her as an ancestor after all.

  18. Loren Coleman responds:

    Hurum has stated he wanted to get publicity, and this appears to involve stirring up the evolutionists and the creationists. Using the phrase “missing link” and naming the genus after Darwin feeds right into this.

    Everyone is being played, it seems.

    Here’s what Christianity Today said about the fossil:

    “Young-earth creationist ministry Answers in Genesis…noted that the fossil bears no connection to apes or humans, and that neither fossils nor similarities between fossils can prove evolution. The article posits that Ida’s remarkable preservation is characteristic of rapid burial caused by a catastrophic flood. Meanwhile, Allahpundit at Hot Air posited that perhaps Richard Dawkins planted it.”

  19. raisinsofwrath responds:

    All but an assumption.

  20. cryptidsrus responds:

    Interesting fossil—I will give it that.

    I still think it was overhyped.

    And it is still unproven that it is a “missing link.”

  21. sschaper responds:

    Kudos to the discoverers, yet I have to say that the *media hype* is plainly of a religio-political nature from Darwinist fundamentalists who seem to be feeling very insecure these days, based on their actions.

  22. DWA responds:

    cryptidsrus:

    Maybe it’s not even so much that it’s overhyped as that it is hyped for the wrong reasons.

    Any primate find in the fossil record hits close to home for us primates. That alone. But you don’t come across too many fossils this well preserved. Period. That it also happens to be of a primate? THAT is cool news, all by itself.

    Guess that my reservation about saying or even speculating where Ida stands vis-a-vis us is that it’s so hard to, well, TELL where. I hear too many people say that the sasquatch’s feet and upright bearing make it human. Well, um, not so much there. To make snap judgments (and hyping what’s been said here makes it look snap to me) just isn’t justified by, among other things, the very incompleness of the fossil record. We don’t really have any more evidence that Ida is in our direct line of ancestry than we do that the aye-aye is. What’s been seen here is intriguing. It should make us wonder.

    But any scientist should know that it shouldn’t make us CONCLUDE. (Or line up stacks of books and mayors etc. that make it look as if we are.)

  23. stranger responds:

    Unfortunately, hype and ulterior motives are rife in the field. Few bother to mention the profit motive involved in some seminal fossil examples, including Archaeopteryx (Darwin himself had questions).

    The entire Piltdown man fiasco is instructive. The “missing link” came from Britain! The Royal Society then became entirely blinded by jingoism to a complete (and less than convincing) hoax by an art forger. It stayed on the books for 40 years and was taught to countless students until a simple test exposed it.

    How much of our science is being corrupted today by similar misdeeds performed for profit, fame, academic recognition, or dogma?

  24. MountDesertIslander responds:

    LOL Loren,

    I just happened to scroll over the progression of evolution graphic in this post. I guess you saved it as annoying_graphic on your computer as the title popped up on my screen. That’s actually pretty funny …and says a lot too.

  25. Terrell H King responds:

    Ida just represents another fur ball of hype spewed out by the unbeneficially mutated monster of evolutionism.

    Finding a lemur which lacks toilet claws or grooming teeth, just proves you found an extinct lemur without toilet claws or grooming teeth. It doesn’t prove it’s offspring will be anything other than lemurs.

    If I found a fossil of a boa and a python, and one was fossilized giving birth to live young, while the other was fossilized laying eggs what would that mean? One was becoming a mammal? Or the other was becoming a duck-billed platypus after mutating into a duck, then a beaver, and co-opting certain characteristics?

    You have to undestand that this is the type of reasoning used when looking at bones in a rock. It is a hundred percent interpretation and zero percent inspiration. You cannot prove that the bones or it’s ancestors had any features that were not expressed from it’s existing genome. For it to not just speciate, but to actually be a part of a macroevolution chain where animals turn into different kinds of animals, you are not looking at empirical science but at a religious belief desperately plastered with ‘the long time ago, and far away, over zillions of years’ excuse.

    What use is it if a lemur loses those teeth and claws in the evolutionary paradigm anyway? Isn’t it worse off? When’s it ever not going to need those features?

    I don’t see why this find cannot be catalogued with other extinct primates and just be forgotten about, other than for financial gain and the perpetuation of evolutionary propaganda. Sometimes when you want to see something, you’re gonna see it no matter what the reality, and the usual appeal to homologeny doesn’t change that.

    How do they know it’s 47 million years old anyway? Don’t tell me they relied on geologic column circular reasoning or hit and miss radiometric dating!

  26. Alligator responds:

    A very interesting fossil find, especially in that it is so complete. But just because someone says it is “the missing link” in primate development certainly doesn’t make it so. Under scientific methodology, this is only a theory. The basic steps in science are:

    1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

    2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

    3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

    4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

    Step 3 and especially step 4 are lacking in research and verification to make such grandiose and absolute statements about “Ida.” Ida could have been a “dead end” and is she really that different from some living species of primate today?

    Of course, this is media hype and the good doctor is hyping as well, calling it the Eight Wonder of the World. Well, in his tight knit circle maybe it is. But I daresay that for most of the world, even those of us with an interest in science and paleontology, it is not. It would not be the first time a major pronouncement was made about a fossil, only to backtrack and recant on the position later.

  27. dudeoftomorrow responds:

    I normally don’t like to get into this debate, but I’m confused: Loren, are you a creationist? Or are you just down on the idea of the concept of this particular find being of importance to human evolution?

  28. Loren Coleman responds:

    “Loren, are you a creationist? Or are you just down on the idea of the concept of this particular find being of importance to human evolution?”

    Neither, of course.

  29. lincoln s responds:

    what exactly do you mean by neither? and dudeoftommorow you can believe in god and the bible while beleiving evolution darwin did I don’t but I’m just saying



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