THIS perfectly preserved, 47-million-year-old fossil could be the missing link between humans and our most distant ancestors.
The exciting find of the lemur-like creature has amazed scientists around the globe.
Sir David Attenborough said last night: “This discovery has stunned the world. There is a bone in her foot that links her with every person on the planet.
The skeleton — nicknamed Ida — is the oldest mammal known to man that had four fingers and opposable thumbs on its hands and feet, meaning it could grasp objects in the same way humans and monkeys can. It could also walk upright.
The species was undiscovered until its skeleton, the most complete fossil primate ever found and estimated to be 37 to 47 million years old, was dug up in Germany’s Messel Shale Pit, a disused quarry near Frankfurt.
It is believed to be 20 times older than most fossils which help explain human evolution.
A two-year scientific study into the fossil is revealed in an extraordinary BBC documentary, Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link, on BBC1 at 9pm next Tuesday, which is presented by Sir David.
Fossil expert Dr Jorn Hurum, who made the discovery, said: “This is like a holy grail for palaeontology. When the results of our investigations are published it will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth.”
Ida was discovered in 1983 by someone whose identity has not been revealed. They then kept it secret.
Dr Hurum, from the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, bought Ida two years ago at a fossil fair in Hamburg.
After checking the skeleton was genuine, Dr Hurum and a team of experts proved that Ida existed before primates split into two branches, monkeys — which led to man — and other mammals.
The team soon discovered that two-feet-long Ida had many lemur-like features including thick fur, a diet of berries and fruit and a long tail that helped her balance.
Ida the lemur has a bone in her ankle like a human's. It meant she could walk upright – a key point in evolution when primates split into human and non-human species
But there were differences, too. Her arms and legs were quite short and she had unusually strong muscles for such a small animal.
She also had primate-like qualities — including nails rather than claws and opposable thumbs on her hands and feet that helped her grip branches. Her hands were almost identical to that of a chimp.
Her pelvis was also shaped like a chimp’s, suggesting she could walk as well on two legs as four.
Crucially, the team also discovered a tiny bone that gave them the undeniable proof they needed.
Sir David said: “A bone in Ida’s foot could be the evidence that the first small adaptations towards walking upright happened 47million years ago.
“A tiny bone in her ankle, the talus, is shaped like that of a modern human. It is the key to bearing weight. This is crucial in making it possible to walk upright.
“Its shape is restricted to monkeys, apes and humans. Modern lemurs and the other prosimians have a bone of a completely different shape.
“This shaped foot bone makes Ida one of us — our 47-million-year-old relative.
It makes Ida the most famous lemur since Original King Julien, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, in the movie Madagascar.
With the publication of his book On The Origin Of The Species 150 years ago, Charles Darwin tried to convince people that we are all descended from the same animals which came crawling out of the sea and eventually became warm-blooded mammals.
Most people today accept that we are descended from monkeys but, until now, there has never been any evidence taking our lineage any farther back in time.
Incredibly, this final piece of Darwin’s jigsaw was almost lost to science when German authorities tried to turn Messel into a massive landfill rubbish dump.
Eventually, after a big campaign, the plans were rejected and the fossil-rich lake was designated a World Heritage Site.
Later this month Ida will be exhibited for one day only at the Natural History Museum in London before being returned to Oslo.
When scientists studied her teeth, she had adult and baby ones, and they worked out that she was nine months old, the equivalent of a six-year-old human in maturity.
They named her after Dr Hurum’s five-year-old daughter, who was beginning to lose her baby teeth.
Ida’s skeleton is perfectly preserved. That is because millions of years ago Messel Shale Pit was formed when molten rock forced its way up and met a layer of water.
A series of massive explosions created a crater a mile wide. Inside its steep walls an incredibly deep lake formed.
When animals fell in they drifted down and were soon covered by mud. There was no oxygen and few bacteria to cause decay.
Sir David added: “Ida comes from a crucial point in our evolution, when the early primates split into the human and non-human groups. She is a fusion of both. She is a transitional species, a link that is no longer missing.
“We are all descended from Ida. Jorn and his team have discovered our earliest complete primate ancestor.
“Remarkably, exactly 150 years after Darwin put forward the proposition that human beings were part of the rest of animal life, here at last we have a link which directly connects us with not only the apes and monkeys but also with the entire animal kingdom.”
The team also found out that Ida had suffered a broken wrist, which stopped her from climbing well.
They believe she was forced to forage for food on the ground, and she was probably killed by carbon dioxide seeping from the ground.
She may have lived for a short time but we know a lot more about life on Earth thanks to her.