Excerpt: 'The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor'

Hurum and Nakrem returned to Perner's table at four p.m., and the three of them walked to a small bar inside the exhibition hall. The bar's specialty was fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and Perner ordered three mixed juice and vodkas. Surrounded by temporary exhibition curtains and attendees wearing name tags, Perner explained to Hurum that a private collector who demanded anonymity had given him six months to sell the fossil he was about to show him. The collector was getting on in years, and he wanted to remain unknown so he wouldn't be harassed for not having put it into the scientific world earlier. Perner then opened an envelope and pulled out a high-resolution color photograph of a complete fossil skeleton. His nerves turned to relief as he shared his secret with Hurum. "This fossil needs a good home," he said. "When I gained access to the fossil, I was very excited about it going to scientific research."

The photograph was of Ida, fossilized after her tragic death.

Hurum was shocked. He knew right away that he was looking at a primate, the order of mammals containing humans, because the big toe was standing out from the foot and the fingers had nails instead of claws. Since the fossil appeared so complete and well preserved, he knew that it had probably come from the Messel Pit. The site had produced some of the world's most complete and articulated fossils, but this one was truly remarkable. The unique geology of the pit allowed him to conclude that the fossil was from the Eocene epoch, or the dawn of recent life. If he was right, it could represent a major scientific breakthrough.

The Eocene, which lasted from 55.8 million to 33.9 million years ago, was a crucial turning point in evolution. Though dinosaurs and mammals had coexisted briefly, the world belonged to mammals now. The first prototypes of the creatures that modern man shares the planet with were emerging, notably the primitive primate. Although, because of gaps in the fossil record, paleontologists have had to hypothesize about what happened after the primitive primate, they have determined that by 40 million years ago, there were, as we know, two distinct primate groups: those with wet noses — lemurs and lorises; and those with dry noses—tarsiers and apes and monkeys.

At some point during the Eocene, this important split in primate evolution occurred; without it, humankind as we know it would not exist. Until the fossil in the photograph was found, no complete skeleton had ever been discovered of an "in-between" species to prove this split. Hurum was fast concluding that the specimen he was looking at could be one of the holy grails of science — the "missing link" from the crucial time period.

Hurum marveled as he studied the picture. She was lying on her side, so Hurum could see one foot and the hands. He could see impressions of the rounded fingertips so typical of nail-bearing fingers. Even the tiniest vertebra was visible. He could see the tail clearly, as well as the fur on the body. The jaw was intact, and it appeared that the teeth were too, which he knew was of great scientific importance because teeth hold the greatest clues to an animal's lifestyle. The shape and stage of the teeth can reveal the age and the diet and also verify that a fossil is of a primate. Amazingly, he could also see the stomach content, evidence of the last meal. She almost looked alive.

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