Did apes descend from us?

It may well be the closest we will ever come to the missing link between chimps and humans and the most important anthropological find ever.

In a series of studies released by the journal Science, researchers have revealed a creature that took the first upright steps toward human beings and fundamentally changes the way we look at our earliest evolutionary ancestors.

The research brings into question the belief that our most distant ancestors descended from apes.

What’s closer to the truth is that our knuckle dragging cousins descended from us.

That’s one of the shocking new theories being drawn from a series of field-altering anthropology papers published today in a special edition of the journal Science.

Meet Ardi, a 1.2 metre, 50-kilogram female that is going to cause a big fuss throughout the anthropology world.

In 11 papers and summaries unveiled by the journal, researchers have revealed the partial skeleton of a creature that undoubtedly walked upright like our “hominid” predecessors, yet had many of the distinctive hallmarks of climbing apes.

“It is probably the most important find we have had yet,” says Owen Lovejoy, a biological anthropologist at Ohio’s Kent State University.

“It’s transformative. This is a lot closer to anything that you’d call the missing link than anything that’s ever been found,” says Lovejoy, one of the primary authors on the journal package.

Among other things, research on the 4.4 million year old creature suggests that humans are far more primitive in an evolutionary sense than the great apes — like chimps and gorillas — of today.

“In a way we’re saying that the old idea that we evolved from a chimpanzee is totally incorrect,” he says. “It’s more proper to say that chimpanzees evolved from us.”

(Could that line of thinking evoke howls of outrage is some creationist quarters? “Oh God yes,” Lovejoy laughs.)