'Toumai man' is really a female ape, say anthropologists

Steve Connor
Thursday 10 October 2002 00:00 BST

A skull described as the oldest human fossil is more likely the head of a female ape, say leading anthropologists.

Milford Wolpoff and colleagues from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor believe the skull of "Toumai man" which was unearthed in the Djurab desert of northern Chad is not actually human.

Earlier this year a team of French anthropologists said that Toumai man – which means "hope for life" in the local Goran language – was a hominid fossil between six and seven million years old, making it man's oldest ancestor. But Professor Wolpoff disputes this claim in a letter published today in the journal Nature. He says the Toumai fossil fails to show the critical signs that it belonged to an ape-like animal that walked on two legs.

"Toumai may be a common ancestor of apes and humans but it is not on the line directly leading to humans," Professor Wolpoff said yesterday. "We think Toumai is an ape and we think it's probably a female because of its canine teeth." Although the canine teeth were relatively small, like those of humans, their size was still within the range of chimpanzees and female gorillas, Professor Wolpoff said.

Scars on the skull left by neck muscles suggest that Toumai man walked on four legs with the head held in a horizontal position on the spine.

Professor Michel Brunet from the University of Poitiers in France, who led the team that described the discovery of Toumai man, replied in a letter to Naturethat Professor Wolpoff and colleagues misrepresented the specimen's shapeand failed to "identify a single character to support their suggestion".

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