Scientists on Tuesday unveiled fossilized remains of one of the oldest and most complete skeletons of an early primate, a finding they say could further our understanding of what our own ancestors might have looked like.
The now-extinct primate lived on the earth some 47 million years ago in the Eocene period.
The creature, nicknamed Ida after University of Oslo researcher Jorn Hurum's six-year-old daughter, was a female with four legs and a tail. It appears to be about nine or 10 months of age and was just under 60 centimetres from its head to the tip of its tail, the scientists said.
It is not a direct ancestor to humans or monkeys, but it did share some characteristics with higher primates worth examining, they said.
The primate, called Darwinius masillae, died at the margin of a volcanic lake in a rain forest in a region about 20 kilometres south of modern-day Frankfurt, Germany, near the town of Messel.
"We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past," they wrote in the scientific journal PLoS One.
The fossil is also so well preserved that the scientists studying it believe its detail will help inform future discoveries of other primates from that era.
"She tells so many stories. We have just started the research on this fabulous specimen," said Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum.
Private collectors first unearthed the fossil in 1983 and split and eventually sold two parts of the skeleton on separate plates.
The fossil has received almost as much attention for the promotion of the discovery as the discovery itself, as the New York Times dubbed the promotion "science for the Mediacene age."
The unveiling of the fossil at New York's Museum of Natural History on Tuesday was timed with the publication of the findings in the scientific journal, and to coincide with a documentary on the story of the fossil find that will later be shown on History, a cable TV show owned by A&E Television Networks. A book on the findings is also scheduled to be published.