Tuesday 19 March 2019

One for the history books at the BBC

Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link (BBC2)

Well, is she or isn't she? I'm talking about Ida, the 47-million-year-old fossil unveiled to the wider world yesterday. Is she or isn't she the fabled missing link?

After Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link, David Attenborough's marvellous mouthful of a documentary, the answer is an overwhelming . . . probably.

Palaeontologists, an argumentative lot at the best of times, are already bickering over the evolutionary significance of Ida -- a lemur-like creature that was dug up in a pit in Germany and spent 25 years, perfectly preserved in resin, hidden away in a private collection before being acquired by Norwegian scientist Dr Jorn Hurum.

Hurum, who was first shown pictures of Ida at a fossil fair and was so excited he couldn't sleep for two nights afterwards, had to raise a million dollars from his academic backers to buy Ida in an "under the table" purchase. The fossil market is an unscrupulous one and the identity of the person that first discovered Ida and kept her from the eyes of the world for so long remains a secret.

Attenborough is convinced too, as are the scientists who spent 10 years helping Hurum scrutinise Ida's skeleton, which is 95pc intact, and features an outline of the fur that once covered her body and contains traces of her last meal (fruit, seeds and leaves).

Attenborough's brilliant film -- like the man himself, a one-off -- was a gripping scientific detective story. Hurum and his team established that Ida was female and that she died young.

Her skull contains both her baby and her adult teeth. Had she been a human child, she would have been between six and eight-years old when she died, probably as a result of an accident.

One of her wrists was at some point broken, probably causing her to fall into the pit where she perished. Hurum christened her Ida after his own five-year-old daughter.

Though Ida would have looked in life more like a lemur (the parallel branch into which some of our earliest ancestors evolved) she was a primate. She had four fingers and an opposable thumb on each hand.

The part of Ida's anatomy that holds the key to her significance, however, is located further down her skeleton, in her feet. Ida's ankles contain talus bones, which are crucial to walking upright. The only other creatures that possess them are humans and primates.

This would seem to pretty much seal the deal. But even if it doesn't, even if palaeontologists go on bickering for decades over Ida's right to be called the missing link, this is a momentous discovery -- and it comes exactly 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed his then radical theories.

Attenborough and the BBC marked it with a momentous documentary that, ironically, is something of a fossil itself: a reminder of just how routinely brilliant public service broadcasting can be when it wants to be.

It was especially welcome in a week when the schedules are being hijacked on a nightly basis by the phoney hysteria and staggering idiocy of Britain's Got Talent.


Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link * * * * *

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