Excerpt: 'The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor'

By 1971, mining had ceased, crippled by competition from cheap oil imports. That year, the German government, which wasn't benefiting financially from the fossil expeditions, decided the pit was an eyesore and declared that it would become a landfill. An access road was even constructed, but the scientific community protested and launched an all-out campaign to save the historic site. The protest delayed plans for a landfill and left the pit open to fossil hunters until a resolution could be reached. Messel's possible destruction sparked a fossil rush. Both scientists and collectors tried to haul as many fossils as they could out of the pit as quickly as possible, and it was a case of finders keepers.

Sometime in 1982, on a routine day for most of the world, a man living on the outskirts of Frankfurt went on a day expedition to the pit to add to his private fossil collection. Unlike those who had pillaged the sacred quarry, he took great care in his work and preserved each fossil on site like a scientist.

While splitting the layers of shale, the fossil hunter stumbled on a fossil of what looked like an exotic monkey crushed to the thickness of a silver dollar. It was Ida, frozen in a fetal position, exactly as she had come to rest on the bottom of the lake.

He realized that he was onto something. He carefully extracted the fossil from the ground and diligently wrapped it in wet newspaper. He then returned to his house and probably employed an expert to prepare the fossil—its preparation is so skillful that just a handful of people in the world could have done it. It must have taken months of careful chipping away the shale and stabilizing the bones before the specimen was ready to be placed on a shelf in his basement with the others he had excavated, away from the eyes of science and the public, for him alone to see.

Fossil collectors can be an obsessive bunch, much like art collectors who hoard famous masterpieces. Many of them merely want to own precious world treasures without telling anyone that they have them in their possession. Some want to withhold them from scientific study. Others are competing for attention in an underground society. For whatever reason, the private collector who found Ida's fossilized remains simply put her on a shelf for the next 25 years. Roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of the Messel Pit, the second-largest fossil fair in Europe is held each December in Hamburg, Germany. In 2006, thousands of people attended, and dealers from all over the world peddled their wares. The fair attracts a diverse crowd. Scientists in tweed sports jackets with elbow patches look for specimens for their museums. Private collectors prowl for that one special snapshot of time. Dealers look for items that can be sold on the black market. And, because of the time of the year, locals shop for unique Christmas presents.

The fair takes place in an exhibition hall that covers half a square mile. Rows of tables display polished stones, diamond crystals, and fossilized animal parts dangling from necklaces. Wall-size plates of rock with imprints of exotic fish are propped up for viewing. To the untrained eye, the fair looks like nothing more than table upon table of rocks. To the trained eye, sometimes that's exactly what it is. Often the best specimens are not on display but rather held by dealers under the tables or in their cars for those who will truly appreciate them — and for those who will pay.

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