Fascinating Ida

The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor by Colin Tudge with Josh Young
The Sunday Times review by Mike Pitts

The Link

Late in 2006, over fruit juice and vodka, Jorn Hurum, a paleontologist at Oslo university’s Natural History Museum and a science broadcaster, was offered a small fossil for $1m. The German dealer who made the offer demanded complete privacy for his client.

Hurum was astonished by what he was shown and, on the evidence of a series of photos, returned to Norway to pitch the deal to his museum. Hurum’s best work up to then had been with dinosaurs and marine reptiles, but the fossil, he explained, could be the Rosetta stone of primate evolution. The museum director said the find could be their Mona Lisa. The money was found and the fossil delivered. Hurum toasted its arrival with champagne, and proclaimed the treasure (which he would name after his daughter Ida) the most complete skeleton ever found of “something in our own lineage”.

Intriguingly, it was only after Ida had been delivered to Oslo that study on the fossil began. Hurum, you could say, had something to prove. The big questions, though, are what, and was he right in his initial view? How important really is this fossil? For the interested lay person, blitzed by a recent scientific media offensive of unparalleled scale and co-ordination, this book should present the answers.

The story begins near Frankfurt, at the Messel Pit, a world-heritage site that is part abandoned quarry and part nature reserve. Some 47m years ago, when Messel was nearer the equator than it is today and the climate was hot and wet, a tongue of boiling rock reached from the depths of the earth to lick at the water table. The exploding steam blew out a crater 3km across that filled with near-stagnant water. Plants and creatures that died and fell in (many of the latter, like Ida, doped by poisonous gases) accumulated out of reach of destructive currents and bacteria.

Over millions of years the lake mud became bituminous shale, which was then quarried for fuel. In 1875, the first recorded fossil was found (a crocodile), and the extraordinary preservation of extinct life forms drew collectors and geologists. From more than 60 horse fossils to what may be the world’s oldest anteater, the lake captured an entire ecosystem from a crucial time in evolutionary history, when mammals had overtaken dinosaurs as one of earth’s successful life forms.

Some of the rarest creatures to emerge from the solidified ooze are early primates — among them Ida, probably the best-preserved primate fossil to be found. Missing a lower leg, she is otherwise almost complete, down to her stomach contents and impressions of her fur and fingernails. Hurum may have swallowed a vodka or two, but he was right to be astonished by the dealer’s photos.

A discovery such as this would typically have been a cover story in Nature or ­Science. Instead, on May 19, it was published online by PLoS ONE, the Public Library of Science journal. As Hurum says, this allows free access to the technical paper (which is longer and better illustrated than it would have been in the print journals). But it also allowed Hurum and his media backers to control publicity. The result was that the story was brought to us by David Attenborough, New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, and journalists and bloggers, not independent specialist scientists. Helped by the near-simultaneous launch of a website, her personal Twitter account, an appearance on Google’s home-page logo and by this book and a television film, Ida received the sort of publicity you would expect if a giant panda had just stepped out on the moon.

You need this context to understand what The Link is meant to achieve — which is not perhaps the same thing Colin Tudge intended. He is a respectable science writer and he delivers an up-to-date, easy read that covers life in the Eocene, ideas about biology and evolution, the origin of primates and the appearance of humans. If that sounds interesting, then you will enjoy this book.

In the one 26-page chapter actually devoted to Ida, however, Tudge’s clear voice wavers. His judgment that Ida can “potentially throw light on our own ancestry” is sound, but is almost lost in the jargon and layers of qualification as he addresses a question it seems he would not himself have asked — is she the missing link? Yet this, according to the cover and subtitle, is what the book is all about. Josh Young, whom Tudge helpfully tells us wrote the opening and closing chapters but whose credentials remain shadowy (he’s not even on the dust jacket), takes up the title theme with less reserve, describing the course of discovery and research. The sense of what must have been a hugely exciting time does not come across, and Young is not always convincing.

“Nobody had seen anything at all like it before,” he says of the photographs shown to Hurum in 2006. But they had. Ida’s less complete mirror half (with gut, but no hands, feet or tail) had been bought by a Wyoming museum in 1991, and examined by the German scientist Jens Lorenz Franzen (Franzen, a co-author of the new technical paper, is the story’s unsung hero: he saved the Messel Pit from becoming landfill, made its fossils his life’s work and published three papers on what became Ida between 1994 and 2003). And, as we now know but Young apparently didn’t, Hurum’s fossil was shown to a National Geographic photographer 10 years ago.

Twenty years ago, Stephen Jay Gould wrote Wonderful Life, about another fossil-rich shale ­— this one in the Canadian Rockies and much older than that in the Messel Pit. Not only did Gould describe the geology, he teased out of it an evolutionary theory. Were it not for the chance survival of some obscure and early life forms, he said, we (their remote descendants) would not exist. The remains from the Messel Pit suggest an opposite theory: creatures come and go, but one way or another something like us would have evolved — when you look at the range of early primate forms, you simply cannot predict which one might have evolved into humans. The Link has none of Gould’s authorial ambitions and develops no theory. But then this idea makes the whole concept of a “missing link” irrelevant.

Ida is fabulous and will tell us much about one early primate, but her place in our lineage is unclear. Hurum’s reluctance to quell press speculation that Ida is a missing link was disingenuous. By comparing Ida to Lucy (ignoring the 40m or so years of species that separate Ida from the African hominin), Young brings the same spirit to what would otherwise be an enjoyable study of a unique fossil site. The Messel Pit and Ida deserve more.

The Link by Colin Tudge
Little, Brown £18.99 pp262

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