Darwinius (Wikimedia Commons).


Darwinius (after naturalist Charles Darwin); pronounced dar-WIN-ee-us


Woodlands of western Europe

Historical Epoch:

Middle Eocene (47 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About two feet long and 5 pounds


Probably omnivorous

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; primate-like anatomy

About Darwinius

To many paleontologists, Darwinius is a case study in how scientific discoveries should not be communicated to the general public. Although the well-preserved fossil of this prehistoric primate was unearthed way back in 1983, it wasn't until recently that an enterprising team of researchers got around to examining it in detail. Rather than share their findings with other paleontologists, the team started a bidding war for book and TV coverage, so that Darwinius was announced "all at once" to the world in 2009--most notably in an extensively hyped documentary on the History Channel. The premise of all the publicity: Darwinius lay at the root of human evolution, and was thus our oldest direct ancestor.

As you might expect, there was an immediate backlash from the scientific community. Some experts maintained that Darwinius wasn't all it was cracked up to be, especially since it was closely related to another well-known early primate, Notharctus. Most at issue was the TV documentary's breathless use of the phrase "missing link," implying that Darwinius somehow led directly to modern humans (to most of the lay public, the phrase "missing link" in the context of human evolution implies a simian ancestor that lived at most a couple of million years ago, not nearly 50!) Where do matters stand now? Well, the scientific community is still examining the fossil evidence--as should have happened before the announcement of Darwinius, not after.