(March 5) --Touted as "the missing link" between humans and early primates, a 47-million-year-old fossil appears to be an ancestor to lemurs instead, a newly released study says. The debate, however, seems far from over, and it illuminates the often tricky relationship between science and the media. http://www.aolnews.com/science/article/ ... 2F19383401
Last spring, when Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Hurum and his colleagues announced the unveiling of "Ida," an unusually complete prehistoric primate fossil, it was portrayed in newspaper and television reports as a blockbuster discovery nothing short of an "eighth wonder of the world" that would offer a look at one of mankind's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
No small part of that excitement was due to Hurum himself, who had provided media outlets with a teasing press release ahead of the official announcement at New York's American Museum of Natural History that heralded the fossil as "a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything."
Jennifer Graylock, jpistudios.com
Some scientists doubt that this fossil, dubbed Ida, is from an early ancestor of humans, as paleontologist Jorn Hurum contends.
The hype surrounding Darwinius masillae, the scientific name given to Ida, preceded the publication of Hurum's research in a peer-reviewed journal. "Normally, you have the paper first, lots of scrutiny by other scientists and then the media enters the picture," Blythe Williams, a visiting professor of paleontology at Duke University, told AOL News.
Williams and three colleagues, writing in a paper published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, found no evidence that Ida represents a missing link.
In the weeks leading up to Ida's May 19 museum debut, the media frenzy intensified. A&E purchased the rights to make a documentary about Ida, and ABC News signed a deal for an exclusive interview with Hurum to appear on "Good Morning America," "Nightline" and "World News With Diane Sawyer." Little Brown & Co. bought the publishing rights, and, according to The New York Times, pre-shipped 110,000 copies of the book, which, like A&E's film, is titled "The Link."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and British television nature host David Attenborough attended the ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History, which was sponsored by the History Channel.
"Any pop band is doing the same thing," Hurum told the Times about the public relations campaign. "Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science."
Discovered in Germany, the fossil was bought by Hurum for $1 million 2007. Ida seemed poised to solve several outstanding evolutionary mysteries, and most of the guests assembled at the American Museum of Natural History seemed sold on its promise.
"Now people say, 'OK, we are primates. Show us the link.' The link they would have said up to now is missing -- well, it's no longer missing," Attenborough said at the event.
Meanwhile, other paleontologists were finally getting their first look at Hurum's paper on Ida, which was released for publication in the journal PloS One to coincide with the media blitz.
The first big challenge came from Erik Seiffert, a fossil hunter at New York's Stony Brook University. Seiffert had uncovered a 37-million-year-old fossil in Egypt remarkably similar to Ida that he said showed that Darwinius masillae was more akin to an extinct ancestor of lemurs and lorises than it was to a monkey or a man.
"Our analysis and results have convinced us that Ida was not an ancestor of monkeys, apes or humans, and if anything, has more relevance for our understanding of lemur and loris origins," Seiffert told The Guardian. Seiffert published his findings in the October issue of Nature.
At the time, Hurum defended his research. "We expected a challenge like this, and it's interesting it has taken five months for the first attack to come," he told The Guardian.
But another paleontologist perplexed by Hurum's claims was Blythe Williams. "The problems with the manuscript jumped out immediately," Williams said. "Yes, Darwinius masillae is, indeed, a very complete, 47-million-year-old fossil. But that doesn't mean it overthrows the incredibly extensive body of research that we have already built up."
Within two weeks of reading Hurum's paper, Williams and her colleagues penned their own point-by-point rebuttal to Hurum's work and reached the same conclusion as Seiffert.
"Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution," said Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the new paper's authors.
Williams believes that Hurum's team selectively chose which data to include. "The animals they used in their study were living ones. So they ignored many of the fossil records that we have," she said.
But this latest study will probably not be the final salvo over the controversial fossil. "It's a relatively small community of scientists," Williams said. "And I understand that Hurum has already begun writing a formal response."
Filed under: Nation, Science