Professor John Long always thought he was simply examining fish when he looked at fossils. Now, thanks to his latest discovery that has radically changed evolutionary knowledge, he realises that he has spent 40 years investigating the genesis of human evolution – and it’s all down to finding evidence of an ancient fish with fingers.
The startling discovery underlines Professor Long’s belief that evolution is quite different from what he calls the “Hollywood version” that is fixated on the transition from monkey to man. Professor Long takes a much longer view – that all of us are connected with all living things, and that bony fish, the earliest vertebrates from 400 million years ago, represent a great unexplored mine of information about the longer evolutionary process.
“In science, knowledge is not written in stone. It is subject to change in the light of fresh evidence,” says Professor Long. “This is a remarkable fossil because it reveals that the digits in our hands evolved before vertebrates left the water to colonise land.
“The big question is what does a fossil tell us about the overall narrative of evolution. To shine a light on that and to challenge existing knowledge changes the model of how we look at evolution.”
As Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, Professor Long has been working with an international team over five years to examine an extraordinary 1.57 metre long Elpistostege fish fossil found in Miguasha, Canada: the perfect example of a complete skeleton from the Devonian period, 375 million years ago. It has revealed startling new insights into how the human hand evolved from fish fins. This has required slow, methodical and careful analysis before results were published in the prestigious Nature (journal) in early 2020, but its influence on evolutionary thinking has been profound.
New analysis of fossils that were discovered many years ago can rewrite evolution thanks to the advances of technologically advanced analysis tools available in the modern laboratory. Flinders University’s Palaeontology laboratory has a glowing international reputation, having an experienced team and the most modern apparatus to tease out new information – which is exactly why Professor Richard Cloutier from Universite du Quebec a Rimouski in Canada started a conversation with Professor Long over a beer at an international conference, mentioning that more scanning and investigation needed to be done on his exceptional Elpistostege fossil.