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Published online 11 July 2002 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news020708-12

News Feature

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New-found skull could sink our current ideas about human evolution.

John Whitfield

It's a lot of emotion to have in my hand the beginning of the human lineage. I have been looking for this for so long." Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers, France© M.P.F.T.

After a decade of digging through the sand dunes of northern Chad, Michel Brunet found a skull 6-7 million years old. He named it Toumaï.

Toumaï is thought to be the oldest fossil from a member of the human family. It's a dispatch from the time when humans and chimpanzee were going their separate evolutionary ways. A thrilling, but confusing dispatch1,2.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis - Toumaï's scientific name - was probably one of many similar species living in Africa at that time. "There must have been a group of apes knocking around between 5 and 8 million years ago for which there's a very poor fossil record," says anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington DC.

Toumaï is the tip of that iceberg - one that could sink our current ideas about human evolution. "Anybody who thinks this isn't going to get more complex isn't learning from history," says Wood.

"When I went to medical school in 1963, human evolution looked like a ladder," he says. The ladder stepped from monkey to man through a progression of intermediates, each slightly less ape-like than the last.

Now human evolution looks like a bush. We have a menagerie of fossil hominids - the group containing everything thought more closely related to humans than chimps. How they are related to each other and which, if any of them, are human forebears is still debated.

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  • Nature
  • ISSN: 1744-7933
  • EISSN: 1476-4687