Skull find supports a rethink on the origins of mankind

A skull from the earliest known member of the human family has been unearthed in a central African desert in what has been described as the most important anthropological discovery for 75 years.

A skull from the earliest known member of the human family has been unearthed in a central African desert in what has been described as the most important anthropological discovery for 75 years.

Scientists believe that the skull, which is dated at between six million and seven million years old, could lead to a fundamental reappraisal of human origins and a radical rethink of the increasingly complex ancestry of man.

The fossilised skull is about three million years older than the next-oldest skull of a hominid and its discovery at a sandblown site in the middle of the Djurab desert of northern Chad has astonished scientists, who once thought that the earliest humans were confined to a region stretching from southern Africa to the Great Rift Valley more than 1,000 miles to the east.

The journal Nature, which publishes details of the find and the site today, says it is the most important research paper in this field since Nature published the landmark discovery of a three-million-year-old "ape man" in 1925.

Nicknamed Toumai, which means "hope of life" in the local Goran language of Chad, the skull has a human-like face with a braincase similar to a chimpanzee. The creature was probably a male no bigger than a small chimp, it lived mainly on a diet of fruit and may even have walked on two legs.

Toumai's age is the most significant factor. It falls in the middle of a five-million-year gap between the point some 10 million years ago when the human family diverged from chimps and the appearance of the many hominid fossils that are less than five million years old.

In addition to the nearly complete skull, the scientists, led by Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers in France, have also found two lower jaw fragments and a selection of teeth from the same species, which they have formally called Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

"It's a lot of emotion; I have in my hand the beginning of the human lineage. I have been looking for this for so long. I knew I would one day find it," Professor Brunet said. "But there are lots of new questions. This is the oldest hominid. It's seven million years old, so the divergence between chimp and human must be even older than we thought before."

The hominid remains were found at a remote location that also includes more than 700 fossils of mammal species, including three-toed horses, hippos, giraffes and a large species of extinct boar. In addition, the scientists have found fossils of fish, crocodiles and other aquatic animals, which suggest that these early ape-like humans lived near a large lake surrounded by open grassland and mature forests.

Without finding other bones, they will be unable to discover whether Toumai lived in the trees or walked around on two legs. "We have [found] no legs, but this new guy with the position of where his spine enters his head doesn't prove that he is bipedal, but it shows he could be," Professor Brunet said.

Toumai's relatively small teeth, with the enamel of his canines worn away mainly at the tips, are typically human rather than ape-like and his flat face lacks the snout-like protuberance of chimpanzee skulls.

Ahounta Djimdoubmalbaye, a graduate student from the University of Ndjamena in Chad, found the skull in July 2001 but its importance was only fully realised after its date was confirmed by an analysis of other fossils found in the same sedimentary layers.

Henry Gee, the scientific editor at Nature responsible for anthropological research, said the skull's age, state of preservation and location hundreds of miles from the usual places in east Africa where early hominids had been found singled out the find as a landmark.

"Toumai is arguably the most important fossil discovery in living memory, rivalling the discovery of the first 'ape man', Australopithecus africanus, 77 years ago – the find which effectively founded the modern science of palaeoanthropology," Dr Gee said. "We've entered a brand new era where the Rift Valley is not the only place to look for human ancestors... These creatures are going to turn up all over the place."

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said Toumai man displayed a mix of primitive and more evolved characteristics that had never been seen before in the same individual.

"It has an ape-like brain size and skull shape, combined with a more human-like face and teeth. It also sported a remarkably large browridge, more like that of a younger human species," Professor Stringer said. "Its discovery shows how much evidence has been missing up to now.... It is too soon so say whether Sahelanthropus might lie directly on our evolutionary line."

* The best preserved skeleton of a dinosaur discovered in France has been uncovered south of Carcassonne. The nearly complete, fossilised skeleton of an ampelosaurus, 36ft long and 8ft high, was found by a student palaeontologist in an ancient river bed at Campagne-sur-ude last August.

Excavation of the site has exposed the dinosaur from its jaw-bone to its tail. The whole of the skeleton should be uncovered by the end of summer. The ampelosaurus was a herbivorous dinosaur that lived about 72 million years ago.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Youth Support Workers Glouceste...

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teaching Jobs Available NOW-Southport

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London