Oslo lands sensational fossil

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Jubilation broke loose at Norway’s Museum of Natural History in Oslo, when it became clear that it would soon house the world’s oldest, intact skeleton. Concerns were raised immediately, though, over security measures for the 47 million-year-old fossil named “Ida.”

Petter Bøckmann of the museum likened the fossil to “an original Renoir” and told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday that it will be a challenge to exhibit it in a way that will ensure its security and allow the public to properly study it.

“We’re talking about an enormous value here,” he said. “You can’t just lock the door behind it and leave for the evening.”

The museum (Naturhistorisk Museum), attached to the University of Oslo, consists of a botanical garden, a geological museum and a zoological museum, all located in the Tøyen district on Oslo’s east side. The fossil is expected to become part of the geological museum, already known for its dinosaur fossils, meteorites and gemstones.

It hasn’t needed a lot of extra security up to now, but after a sensational robbery at the nearby Munch Museum a few years ago, the issue was on many minds this week. Tora Aasland, the government minister in charge of research and higher education in Norway, went on national radio Wednesday with promises that adequate security would be provided. The government has granted additional funding of around NOK 2.3 million for the fossil, but more may be necessary.

The museum purchased the fossil, found south of Frankfurt in 1983, from a German collector two years ago. The museum paid a relatively modest sum of NOK 4.5 million (about USD 650,000 at the time), reports NRK, but after its significance became known, it’s now considered priceless.

An international team of researchers led by Norwegian paleontologist Jørn Hurum believes it provides “the missing link” in the story of human development. They claim the fossil is of an early female ape species that lived around nine months, the equivalent of six years for humans.“The fossil is so complete, everything’s there,” Hurum says. “It’s unheard of in the primate record at all.” The ape, now named after Hurum’s six-year-old daughter, measured nearly 60 centimeters with a long tale.

While Hurum conceded that scientists undoubtedly will debate the fossil’s significance for years, he was supported by many well-known figures internationally. Sir David Attenborough, for example, said that “this little creature is going to show us our connection with all the rest of the mammals.”

Professor Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan in the US called it “a kind of Rosetta Stone” while Jörg Habersetzer of the Senckenberg Research Institute said the fossil “rewrites our understanding of the early evolution of primates.”

It was expected to arrive in Oslo later this month and go on exhibit at the Natural History Museum June 5.