The Three-Quarter Million Dollar Ape-man

on May 30, 2009

The Times: “Jorn Hurum: I Paid $750,000 for Ida the Fossil and Have No Regrets” The paleontologist who brought Ida to the media spotlight dropped a cool $750,000 (£465,000) to get his hands on it.

Even for those who only pay casual attention to the news, it was hard to miss the unveiling (literally) of “Ida” last week, the well-preserved fossil hailed as a “missing link” in human evolution by the small group of researchers who presented it. (We answered the claims in a full article, Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Missing Link at Last?)

But, as the Times reports, those researchers were summarily “subjected to professional condemnation” over discrepancies between the peer-reviewed scientific analysis and the sensationalized media presentation (we covered the condemnation as well, in Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Real Story of this “Scientific Breakthrough”).

Other scientists argue that Hurum fueled an inappropriate “black market” in fossils.

The lead scientist on Ida has now revealed he paid a whopping three-quarters of a million dollars to obtain the fossil. Jørn Hurum purchased the fossil from an amateur collector whose original asking price was $1 million (as had previously been reported). The fossil itself was discovered in 1983.

The revelation fueled further debate over the media circus surrounding Ida, which many scientists have argued was not in line with scientific professionalism (again, see Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Real Story of this “Scientific Breakthrough”). Hurum defended himself by telling the Times:

It’s the only near-complete fossil primate ever found. There is absolutely nothing like it. She could easily have been bought by a private collector and disappeared for another 20 years.

Other scientists argue that Hurum fueled an inappropriate “black market” in fossils. “Nobody should stimulate the idea that these things are of monetary value,” said Duke University paleontologist Elwyn Simons.

Chris Beard, Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator and already an outspoken critic of the handling of Ida, added, “The big problem is that we have to go to the Third World and convince our colleagues there that these fossils have only scientific worth and not commercial value.” According to the Times, Beard believes that “further examination of the fossil will eventually lead to it being placed on the lemur line.”

But Hurum likens the big-ticket purchase of Ida to the way art museums obtain masterpieces. Hurum also told the Times that neither he nor the museum will receive significant income from the media hubbub surrounding Ida, quieting suggestions that Hurum’s risky purchase demanded a large return—and consequently the sensationalism.

Our primary interest in the fossil is not how it was financially handled by the researchers and the media—or, at least, not directly—but rather the exaggerated claims made by the Ida researchers. Nonetheless, it seems at every turn that the disagreement over Ida is growing.


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