Ida is not remotely a human ancestor — or even an ape

2009-10-24 00:00

NEW YORK — Remember Ida, the fossil discovery announced in May with its own book and television documentary? A publicity blitz called it “the link” that would reveal the earliest evolutionary roots of monkeys, apes and humans.

Experts protested that Ida is not even a close relative. And now a new analysis supports their reaction.

In fact, Ida is as far removed from the monkey-ape-human ancestry as a primate could be, says Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University in New York.

Seiffert and his colleagues compared 360 specific anatomical features of 117 living and extinct primate species to draw up a family tree. They report the results in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature

Ida is a skeleton of a 47-million-year-old cat-size creature found in Germany. It starred in a book, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor.

Ida represents a previously unknown primate species called Darwinius. The scientists who formally announced the finding said they are not claiming Darwinius to be a direct ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans.

But they argue that it belongs in the same major evolutionary grouping and that it shows what an actual ancestor of that era might have looked like.

The new analysis says Darwinius does not belong in the same primate category as monkeys, apes and humans.

Instead, it concludes, the creature falls into the other major grouping, which includes lemurs.

Experts agreed.

“This is a rigorous analysis based on many features,” said Eric Sargis, an anthropology professor at Yale.

Sargis said that he has found the argument of the Darwinius researchers unconvincing and that the new result comes as no surprise.

In fact, it confirms what most scientists think, said David Begun, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto.

Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, an author of the Ida paper, said he welcomes the new analysis. Darwinius is an example of a group of primates called adapoids, Hurum wrote in an e-mail message, adding that “we are happy to start the scientific discussion” about what Ida means for where adapoids fit on the primate family tree.

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