Excerpt: 'The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor'

"This is so beautiful," he said, having tuned out the fair swirling around him. "It's like finding the lost ark."

The find represented a once- in-a-lifetime experience for any paleontologist. Nobody had ever seen anything at all like it before, except for the private collector who owned it, Perner, and now Hurum and his colleague. After Perner showed him pictures of the hands and one of the feet, making it clear that the specimen had the fingernails and opposable toe of a primate, Hurum knew he had to protect the fossil at any cost.

But the asking price was steep — $1 million. The Oslo Natural History Museum had never paid more than $15,000 for a fossil. Hurum asked Perner to give him until after Christmas to talk to some of his contacts to see if he could raise the money — provided the fossil was genuine.

Hurum couldn't sleep for the next two nights. He tossed and turned, hoping the fossil was real and wondering how he was going to bring this discovery to the world. There were strict rules when it came to fossils like this because so much illegal private collecting went on around the world. Hurum would not be able to formally describe this fossil in any scientific work unless it was legally collected and placed in an official museum. This was to make sure that other scientists could also access the specimen in the future. He knew of complete fossilized dinosaurs that would never become part of the scientific record because they had been collected illegally and were now in the hands of private collectors. He didn't want this fossil to fall into that category.

First he would have to raise the money. The Oslo museum was clearly his fiirst choice, but he was worried that, since the University of Oslo was its primary funding source, it wouldn't be able to put up the money. He began to think of other museums with wealthy sponsors that he could call. He would need to hire the most reputable scientists to conduct CT scans and X-rays to prove the fossil's authenticity. Once that was finished, he would need to enlist other experts in Eocene primates and the Messel Pit to describe the specimen. They would all have to work in unison and then present their findings to the scientific community, which was certain to have its skeptics.

Crucially, Hurum would have to make sure that it was a legal specimen, meaning that it was excavated before the Messel Pit became a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Permits to export it from Germany to Norway would also need to be secured. If the fossil was collected after 1995, it was unlikely that it would ever be allowed to leave the country.

But despite the challenges ahead of him, Hurum knew he must see the fossil in person and ultimately relocate it to a public museum for study and observation. The work he had to do seemed insignificant in the face of his strong hunch that he was about to come face-to-face with the most complete primate fossil ever found — maybe even that of a human ancestor.

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