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  • For two years,

  • a team of top scientists have been secretly studying a unique fossil.

  • This fossil will probably be the one

  • that will be pictured in all text books for the next 100 years.

  • They believe it could be one of our earliest primate ancestors.

  • Well, it's really a kind of Rosetta Stone because it ties together

  • parts we haven't been able to associate before.

  • Have they found our oldest, complete, primate ancestor?

  • The fossil has more information in it then in any fossil I've ever seen.

  • Their research has stunned the world.

  • In the moment when the results of our investigations will be

  • published, this will be just like an asteroid hitting the earth.

  • 47 million years ago the dinosaurs were already long extinct.

  • It's the time when the blueprints for modern mammals were being established.

  • Dense, tropical rainforests cover the earth.

  • They're home to small primates.

  • Among them is an ancestor to us all.

  • For almost 200 years, scientists have searched

  • for links to our prehistoric past.

  • The search has concentrated in East Africa,

  • known as the cradle of mankind.

  • Here in the 1970s, they found the link between apes and man.

  • It offered conclusive proof that we started walking upright 3.2 million years ago.

  • A human ancestor, a female, Lucy.

  • Then in 1984, the remains of a boy were found.

  • Material evidence that 1.5 million years ago, humans had already

  • lost their hair and taken their first steps onto the open savannah.

  • Scientists have long hoped that the earth might eventually yield

  • an even more ancient fossil that links apes, man

  • and all the other primates to the earliest mammals on earth.

  • This could be it.

  • A fossil so ancient it could shine a light deeper into our history than ever before.

  • And so detailed it could help science reveal the origins of every person on the planet.

  • This fossil is so complete.

  • Everything's there. It's unheard of in the primate fossil record at all.

  • You have to get to human burial to see something that's this complete.

  • This is really, really the most complete fossil primate ever.

  • World-renowned fossil expert Dr Jorn Hurum of Oslo University

  • has spent his life scouring the earth for important fossils.

  • But the most incredible specimen of them all,

  • the one that would change his life, took him totally by surprise.

  • It was in December 2006 at the annual Hamburg Fossil Fair.

  • Here the tables were laden with beautiful examples

  • of fossils and minerals to catch the public eye.

  • But Jorn didn't expect to find something for his museum on a stall.

  • The best specimens are never shown on a show.

  • They are always what we call "under the table".

  • So you need to know the dealers

  • to be shown the really, really, really good things.

  • The dealer, Thomas Perner, promised an extraordinary find.

  • When the dealer told me in the middle of the day

  • at a mineral show in Hamburg that I should join him for a drink

  • because he wanted to show me something,

  • I knew that it was something special.

  • Then he showed me some photographs and I was completely stunned.

  • And I didn't sleep for two nights after that,

  • because I knew that what I'd seen, it was probably

  • the most beautiful fossil I was ever going to see in my whole life.

  • Jorn made a home video of the very first moment

  • he came face to face with the fossil.

  • THEY LAUGH

  • Oh!

  • This is the best fossil and rarest fossil worldwide.

  • Wow!

  • Oh!

  • It's beautiful. It's beautiful.

  • Complete foot and two complete hands.

  • Yeah.

  • OK. Wow!

  • Yes!

  • Jorn believed he had stumbled across a 47-million-year-old treasure -

  • the perfectly preserved skeleton of a small creature,

  • more complete than he could ever hope for.

  • But his joy may be short-lived.

  • International fossil dealing is a cut-throat business.

  • Jorn must act swiftly if he wants to save it for science.

  • The thing about important fossils, there's a big black market and

  • there's a lot of private collectors, like with art and other things.

  • So a lot of important specimens are still locked in the basement of some rich guy or something like that.

  • So it needs to be in a public museum to be studied.

  • The asking price is over 1 million.

  • Jorn's got to be certain it's a genuine fossil and not a forgery.

  • He has it scientifically examined.

  • You can fake an outer surface of bone that looks really real,

  • but you cannot fake the inner structure of a bone.

  • It's impossible.

  • So getting an X-ray, you can see the inside of the bone.

  • You can see actually the bone marrow inside.

  • We know that it's 100% a real fossil.

  • There is no doubt at all.

  • The X-rays prove this fossil is genuine.

  • The necessary funds were secured and Jorn shipped it home.

  • In Norway's capital city, Oslo, in his museum lab,

  • Jorn finally gets to properly investigate his new treasure.

  • This is so complete that you cannot, even in your dreams,

  • wish for something being 47 million years old and this complete.

  • Usually, we only find teeth, broken parts of jaws

  • and small bones from the middle foot, maybe some toes and so on.

  • Just single, small bones from these animals this long ago.

  • Astonishingly, this fossil is not just bone.

  • Its level of preservation is extraordinary.

  • Here's an imprint of the bacteria that grew on the fur.

  • So actually we can see how much fur was there.

  • You cannot see the muscles or anything like that,

  • but you can see an outline of the body

  • that's bigger than just a skeleton.

  • You can actually see where the fur covered the animal

  • and how thick the fur was.

  • This unique fossil is so detailed

  • that it immediately reveals important information to Jorn.

  • The first thing I recognised was the big toe standing up like this,

  • 90 degrees to the rest of the foot.

  • And if you look very careful, to both the fingers and the toes,

  • you can see that there were nails and not claws.

  • This is a primate, just from seeing that image of that foot.

  • It was really a wake-up call for me.

  • Apes, monkeys and us all belong to one particular group of mammals,

  • the primates.

  • And the common feature we all share

  • is four fingers and an opposable thumb -

  • the characteristic we share with this 47-million-year-old fossil.

  • Could we be related?

  • Looking at the hand, you can see that it's got five fingers, of course,

  • and nails on all the fingers. But also the thumb is opposable like us,

  • so it can grasp things, it can hold things the same way we do today.

  • It's already there 47 million years ago.

  • It's a proper hand to hold around things.

  • To properly analyse the fossil, Jorn must share his secret.

  • He handpicks a small team of experts,

  • each a world leader in their discipline.

  • I knew immediately that this fossil was too important.

  • So I started to invite people in to make a dream team

  • around this fossil, to make the first description really proper.

  • If I would do it alone, I'm not an expert in primates,

  • but there are some good people around the world

  • and I invited the best ones to join me and they all said yes.

  • Dr Holly Smith is a dental anthropologist.

  • By studying the fossil's teeth, she will be able to determine

  • what the creature ate, its age and how it compares to other primates.

  • The fossil could be the ancestor

  • of prosimians and apes and monkeys and the lineage leading up to man.

  • Joining the team is Dr Jens Franzen, a renowned fossil expert

  • who's been waiting for an opportunity such as this.

  • This is by far the most complete

  • fossil primate ever found on the world.

  • And we have not only the complete skeleton,

  • but we have also the complete soft body outline

  • and we have the gut content. So what do you want more, ja?

  • Hi! It's nice to see you. How was the flight?

  • Professor Philip Gingerich is the next on board.

  • He's spent his life searching for links between early and modern mammals.

  • I suppose one of my initial thoughts was,

  • "This is a big job. This will be a lot of work."

  • Partly because there isn't anything else like it

  • and so it really deserves to be compared carefully

  • with all the various fragmentary fossils we have

  • and also with the skeletons of the living ones.

  • And you put all that together, that's a big work.

  • They plan a long and thorough study.

  • They must be certain of their conclusions

  • before they reveal the fossil to the world.

  • Until then, they will work in secret on their extraordinary treasure.

  • As soon as they start their analysis,

  • the fossil begins to come to life before their eyes.

  • The pelvic region, of course,

  • it's possible actually to tell the sex from this area.

  • In this region, you will expect to see a baculum or not.

  • All primates at that time possessed a penis bone, known as a baculum.

  • We now know from looking at the specimen

  • that there's no baculum present.

  • So this is a girl,

  • this is a small female that lived 47 million years ago.

  • The investigation is gathering pace.

  • The next question is where does she come from?

  • And it's the way her delicate body has been preserved,

  • and not her skeleton, that provides the answers.

  • There's only one locality in the world where this transfer technique,

  • that the fossils are put in this kind of polyester,

  • that all the fossils are prepared like this. This is the only place.

  • All the major primate fossil finds until now have been made in Africa.

  • But this one has been prepared using resin,

  • a technique used, not in Africa, but in Germany.

  • The fossil was found here, in a place known as the Messel Pit.

  • There is nowhere in the world like it.

  • It's an ancient crater filled with an unrivalled collection

  • of fossils, all dating from the Eocene Period, 47 million years ago.

  • It's like a peek-hole into a whole community,

  • a whole ecosystem in the Eocene.

  • That suddenly you see that everything you find usually

  • as small pieces of things, you have complete

  • in this one locality, one place in the world

  • and that's something that palaeontologists really, really treasure.

  • So this is like a holy grail for palaeontology.

  • Dinosaurs were long extinct.

  • The shales of Messel had already yielded fossil birds,

  • reptiles and amphibians,

  • complete with the impression of their feathers, scales and skin.

  • The biggest ants ever known

  • and beetles, still with their colour after millions of years.

  • Preserved in incredible detail are bats,

  • snakes and even a miniature horse the size of a small dog.

  • The first glimpses of kinds of creatures that are alive today.

  • The Eocene Period is really the critical stage for mammal evolution.

  • It's when all the old-timers, they are still around

  • and the newcomers are coming strongly into the field.

  • We have the first horses, the first carnivores,

  • the first bats, the first whales. All these new mammals are evolving

  • in the Eocene and, of course, the primates, they are thriving.

  • But which were our ancestors?

  • Until now, no complete primate has ever been found in the Messel Pit,

  • and even this specimen was almost lost forever.

  • Fossil hunters have dug in the Messel Pit for generations,

  • collecting and selling the specimens as works of art,

  • just such a fossil hunter must have dug this primate from the shale.

  • Who this was is still a mystery, but we do know they took her away,

  • perfectly preserved her in resin

  • and locked her away from view for 25 years.

  • It's like having your unknown Rembrandt,

  • your unknown Van Gogh, at home.

  • You can see it every day. The rest of the world don't know about it.

  • And it makes you kind of feel powerful I think to have something like that.

  • Fortunately, now she's with Jorn,

  • her secrets can be revealed to the world and the team in Oslo

  • are starting to examine and describe her skeleton bone by bone.

  • By why are fossils from the Messel Pit so well preserved?

  • It's thanks to the formation of the Messel Pit 50 million years ago.

  • Deep underground, molten rock, magma, forced its way upwards.

  • Just below the surface, it meant a layer of ground water.

  • Superheated steam generated incredible pressure.

  • The rock was ripped apart.

  • A series of massive explosions

  • created a crater a mile wide.

  • Inside its steep walls, an incredibly deep lake formed.

  • It was probably at least 100m deep and the waters were still.

  • When animals fell in,

  • they drifted down and were soon covered by mud at the bottom.

  • There was no oxygen and few bacteria to induce decay.

  • Undisturbed for millions of years,

  • the bodies, buried under tonnes of mud, were squashed flat.

  • It is the Messel Pit's extraordinary geological history

  • that allows Jorn to pinpoint exactly when this fossil lived.

  • The start of this whole lake, where the fossil was found,

  • that was a volcanic explosion, and parts of that volcanics

  • that came out in the explosion, they are like time capsules.

  • And it's possible to date the radioactive isotopes

  • in such volcanic rocks very, very precisely.

  • And this has been done for this volcanics and it's 47 million years.

  • Despite the millions of years that have passed since these animals were alive,

  • their bodies have been preserved in such detail

  • that they give us a full picture of their world.