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The 130M-year-old rock that could solve the meaning of life; How recently discovered fossils caan unlock our planet's deepest mysteries.

Byline: Vikki White

THEY are tantalising pieces of the past that help to unlock the secrets of our planet.

Fossils of plants and creatures dating back millions and billions of years not only show evolutionary change but may also help improve our future.

Now a report has revealed a fossil of the aquatic plant Montsechia vidalii, found in the Pyrenees, is up to 130 million years old, making it the world's oldest flower.

Natural History Museum scientist Dr Paul Kenrick said: "It's helping us to date the age of when flowers first appear.

"It's interesting as it's an aquatic plant and right at the early stage of flowering plant evolution.

"Some of the earliest fossils are aquatic." Most flowering plants are pollinated through the air but thisone would have been pollinated under water. "So this peculiar point of pollination was there right from the beginning," the expert went on. "Fossils can be very important on several levels. They can tell you howparticularstructuresinplantsand ani mals have evolved.

"You can't get a complete picture by looking at living plants, as so many thi ngs have become exti nct."

From pottery to the bone f rag-mentsof our ancestorsandd bacteria, fossils can play a crucial part in hel pi ng future generati ons.

Research scientist Dr Kenrick said they can lead to a greater understanding not only of geology but of the impact of climate change on the planet and everything living on it. He said: "One example is how we are trying to understand how organisms work from their genetics.

"This is a study of living things but it's informed by how organ systems evolved in the past. The fossil record gives us an aspect of that answer.

"They show us changes in climate and where organisms have lived. That's quite important for us now in terms of how we're affecting the environment and what the impact of that might be.

"That's important from linking the origins of various groups - about how these organisms interact with the earth as well.

"The oxygen, the atmosphere, the water in the oceans, the rocks themselves. The chemistry of this is quite important, too."

Here, we look at some of the greatest finds so far, and how they have helped us understand the world we live in.

features@people.co.uk

Earliest flower

IT may just look like an old weed but its discovery could unlock vital secrets about all plant life.

This is an artist's representation of Montsechia vidalii, now thought to be the world's oldest flower.

The simple pond weed, from the freshwater lakes of northern and central Spain, dates back up to 130 million years.

Probably lunch for the vegetarian dinosaurs, it didn't have roots or petals but bore fruit containing a single seed - the defining characteristic of a flowering plant.

David Dilcher, professor at Indiana University, led the study into Montsechia vidalii fossils, which has just been released.

He said: "This discovery raises significant questions about the evolutionary histoevolutionary history of plants, as well as the of these plants in the evolution of other plant and animal life."

Bees play a vital role in pollination of modern flowering plants, including many crops, but their numbers are declining.

Prof Dilcher said: "This plant shows us where it all began. If we know more about their evolution, we might come across alternative pollinators that are hidden out of sight."

Oldest kitchen

THE world's oldestknown pottery was found in a cave in Southern China and dates back 20,000 years.

The ancient ceramic fragments are thought to have made up a simple cauldron used to cook food, or possibly brew alcohol.

The early kitchen crockery was found Xianrendong Cave in the Jiangxi Province and could belonged to from hunting and gathering community.

Agriculture, when people to stay in one place for periods, didn't arrive for 10,000 years.

It was previously widely believed pottery emerged after agriculture, because the items were large and breakable. But Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, the lead researcher on the find, revealed in 2012, said: "Huntergatherers were under pressure to get enough food.

"If the invention is a good one, it spreads pretty fast.

"And it seems that in that part of southern China, pottery spread among huntergatherers in a large area."

It is thought that the bowl was about 20cm high and 15-25cm in diameter and thatwas used to either steam or boil food.

Little finger

A FRAGMENT of bone from a finger dating back 1.85 million years changed scientists' view of our ancient ancestors.

The bone, part of the little finger on an adult's left hand, was found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

It is from an unidentified hominin lineage, the ancient relatives of humans who split from the chimpanzee lineage.

The bone seems to belong to a human relative taller and larger than any of its contemporaries. Before the find, scientists weren't certain when hominin hands began looking like modern hands and became specialised for creating and using tools.

Previous analysis suggested ancient hominins had curved finger bones and spent their lives in the trees.

Lead researcher Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo, from the Institute of Evolution in Africa, said: "Our discovery fills a gap - we found out that such a modern-looking hand is at least 1.85 million years old.

It shows the species was committed to living on the ground." It is thought our human ancestors began to use tools about 2.6 million years ago.

But finding evidence that hands adapted by then has proved elusive, as smaller bones don't preserve as well as skulls.

Ancient fish face

THE 419-million-year-old fossil of the fish Entelognathus primordialis is the oldest-known creature with a face.

The remains were discovered in China in 2013 and the fish is thought to have given rise to all subsequent faces - including our own.

Excavated at the Xiaoxiang Reservoir in the south east of the country, the fish has a jaw, nostrils and a tiny eye socket.

Little else is known about the creature, but it was likely to have been a top-level predator.

Scientists were excited by its mix of traits from placoderms - an extinct armoured fish - and bony fish, which gave rise to all modern fish that have jaws and skeletons made of bone.

It was assumed placoderms died out and a different group evolved into bony fish.

Matt Friedman, a paleobiologist at Oxford University, said: "If you look at just the top of the skull and the body, it looks like a placoderm.

"But when you look at the side, and the Rock shows face front, you see it has jaws that, bone for bone, closely resemble the jaws of bony fish.

"It's the kind of fossil you might see once or twice in your lifetime as a research scientist."

Billion-year bacteria

RESEARCHERS claim fossils of bacteria found on rocks in the Pilbara region of north west Australia are the oldest to be discovered anywhere on Earth.

In ridge patterns crisscrossing the rocks, the fossils are thought to be 3.5 billion years old - dating back to just 1 billion years after the planet came into existence.

"Those are our oldest ancestors," said Professor Nora Noffke, a biochemist at the Old Dominion University in Virginia, USA, part of the team which made the find in 2013.

"I can confidently say the structures we're working on cannot be found on older rocks.

"Until now, there has been nothing this well preserved.

"There are some specimens that are much older, but they experience metamorphosis whereby anything that's on them has been overprinted.

"It makes it difficult to reconstruct what was there."

The find could take scientists closer to understanding the first chapters of life on Earth, as well as helping the search for ancient life on other planets such as Mars.

Remnants of life could be better-preserved on Mars due to fewer geological processes damaging its telltale signs.

Oldest human

THE discovery of a jaw, with teeth still attached, dating back 2.8 million years shed new light on human evolution.

The fossil, found in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, is 400,000 years older than any previous evidence of man's lineage.

Chalachew Seyoum, an Ethiopian studying at Arizona State University, spotted the jaw jutting out of a rocky slope in January 2013. The discovery more the time when ape-like animals evolved modern humans. It suggests Australopithecus an ancient forerunner modern humans, died out was superseded by two human forms. One was Paranthropus, with a small brain, large teeth and strong jaw. The other had a big brain and was the Homo lineage of which Homo sapiens - modern-day humans - is a sub species.

"This is the first inkling we have of that transition to modern behaviour," said Brian Villmoare, from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, part of the expedition team.

He added: "We were no longer solving problems with our bodies but with our brains.

"By finding this jaw bone we've figured out where that the fossil trajectory started.

"This is the first Homo. It marks, in all likelihood, a major adaptive transition."

CAPTION(S):

FLOWER POWER: Dr Kenrick

DISCOVERY: Pyrenees site of find

WHAT'S COOKING?: Pottery find

MUG SHOT: Rock shows face

FIRST LIFE: Ancient bacteria cells

JUTTING JAW: The fossil

ROCK OF AGES An amazing fossil of the underwater Montsechia
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Aug 23, 2015
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