'Missing Link' Fossil Debated by Science

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 11 (UPI) — The controversial question of whether a monkey-like fossil represents a “missing link” to humans got an airing at a Pittsburgh conference, researchers said.

Scientists at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists Sunday debated whether the complete primate fossil Darwinius masillae, nicknamed Ida, represent a “missing link” of early primates leading to great apes and humans or is nothing more than an ancient lemur whose line represents a fossil footnote, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Philip Gingerich, a University of Michigan paleontologist, argued the intact 47 million-year-old fossil is from a line of early primates that broke away from lemurs down a course leading to monkeys, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and, eventually, humans.

The Ida fossil received heavy publicity, including high-profile articles, a book, a Web site and a television documentary, but not everyone is convinced.

Christopher Beard, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said a primate he discovered in 1994, Eosimias sinensis, more likely represents a link to humans, and Ida is nothing more than an ancient lemur.

Gingerich “has a long mountain to climb” to convince the majority of paleontologists that he’s correct, Beard said.

Gingerich said he feels the tide’s been turning in favor of Ida and was surprise at language Dr. Beard and others have used, including claims of “outrage.”

Disagreements in paleontology are usually more polite, he said.

“Usually people are more levelheaded when they speak,” he said. “I can only conclude that we have hit a nerve. But that is not my problem. Let’s keep it in perspective. Humans came from apes, and apes came from monkeys, and there was something that came before them.”

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