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Oldest Fossil Found in Australian Outback - 2003-10-31

Scientists in Australia believe a tadpole-shaped fossil found in the outback could revolutionize theories on the origins of man. The fossil is estimated to be 560 million years old, making it older than any other fossil of its type. Paleontologists say it looks like a vertebrate and could be "the deepest part of the tree of life."

The chance discovery by a livestock farmer checking his cattle could force scientists to reconsider their assumptions about the origins of human beings.

The farmer found the fossil - embedded in a slab of rock - more than four years ago. It sat outside his homestead until someone finally noticed its unique shape and called in scientists.

Tim Flannery, the director of the South Australian Museum, said it is a remarkable find. "I think that once word gets out about this find, people will be astonished. It's bound to be controversial," he said. "The fossil is beautifully preserved and appears to show the main features or characteristics that we look for. But we'll just have to sit back and wait and see what the scientific reaction is."

Until scientists examined the Australian fossil, the oldest like it was found in China. This fossil was a jaw-less fish and showed that animals with backbones probably lived 530 million years ago.

Scientists say the Australian fossil is 30 million years older. Most fossils from this prehistoric time are like jellyfish or seaweed, but evidence of a backbone in the tiny fish-like creature points to a much earlier possible emergence of human ancestors.

The fossil was found in a remote sandstone corner of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The exact location is being kept a secret, but paleontologists consider the ancient seabed beneath the range a treasure-trove of fossils.