What Ida Tells Us

At 95% complete, Ida gives us unprecedented detail on primate development at a crucial stage in our evolutionary story.

Why does an ancient primate like Ida really matter? Why does Jørn Hurum say that Ida's fossil "will be the one that will find a place in the textbooks for the next hundred years"?

To begin with, she is one of the finest fossils ever found, one that will find a place on a very short list of all-time greats. Ida is the only complete fossil primate of any age that has ever been discovered. Until now, scientists studying primitive primate evolution in the Middle Eocene period have only had fragments of fossils to study as they try to understand how early primates split into the prosimian and anthropoid groups.

Now they have a fossil that is not only extraordinarily old, but also preserved in astonishing detail. For a creature of any age, she is in a miraculous condition. Her skeleton is almost 100% complete. Around the skeleton is a shadow of the fur, and among the bones, where the intestines would have been, are the fossilised remains of her last meal. Studying all these features allows us to reconstruct her life history, the way she moved and her diet. There is no primate fossil from the Eocene from which we can learn so much – in fact, there is no primate so well preserved until we get to human burial.

As a primate, Ida is part of our own order, and able to throw light on our own ancestry. She comes from a highly significant age — the time when the anthropoids, our own subgroup of primates, were branching off from the prosimians.

Put everything together and Ida's significance becomes clear: uniquely well preserved; from an era of key significance in primate evolution; and complete enough to help us rewrite our understanding of the primate family tree. Ida helps tell us who we really are and where we come from. We are all descended from Ida's kind.

But the work done so far by the scientists is only the beginning. They have described the fossil in extensive detail, but their findings will provoke much further research into primitive primate development. Ida's exact place at the root of anthropoid evolution will be long debated, and every primate fossil fragment from this period will need to be reexamined in light of what we now know thanks to Ida.

We will be learning from Ida for years to come. She is a link to our earliest origins like no other. That she exists at all is remarkable. That she is so well preserved for us all to see is miraculous.