Toumaï the Human Ancestor
Skull of Oldest Known Hominid Unearthed in Chad
Listen to David Kestenbaum's report.
Listen to Robert Siegel's interview with Donald Johanson, founder of "Lucy."
July 10, 2002 --
Scientists have discovered an unusual skull that is forcing them to rethink the timetable of human evolution. Anthropologists say it belongs to a previously unknown species of ape that lived six or seven million years ago. Its face looks remarkably modern, suggesting that perhaps this species -- not others sitting in museum drawers -- eventually evolved into modern humans.
The skull is twice as old as any ever found, and was discovered by a group working in Chad, Central Africa.
The international team, the Mission Paléoanthropologique Franco-Tchadienne (MPFT), led by French paleontologist Michel Brunet, described both the skull and the surrounding area, which gives insight into the environment in which the hominid lived, in the current issue of the journal Nature.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports that scientists were amazed at what they saw. "More recent fossils, like the famous Lucy, still retain a very long spoon like snout, like a chimp. But this fossil was several million years older than Lucy, and yet the face was already flat, like modern humans."
The hominid specimen has been nicknamed Toumaï, a name given in the Djurab desert to children born before the dry season. The finding suggests that the path from a common ancestor with chimpanzees to humans is not as simple as previously thought. Toumaï is considered a new hominid, a new genus and new species. Researchers are divided as to whether Toumaï is actually an ancestor of later hominids or simply part of the hominid diversity of the past.
However, researchers agree that this discovery is momentous. Daniel Lieberman, an anthropologist at Harvard University, told Kestenbaum: "This is probably one of the most important paleontological discoveries in last 100 years. This is going to fundamentally change how we think about human evolution."
An evolutionary timeline, prepared by NPR.
NPR reports on an early mammal ancestor discovered in April 2002.
NPR's Chris Joyce reports on what was previously thought to be the earliest human ancestor, found in Ethiopia.
Experts discuss the Ethiopian discovery on Talk of the Nation, August 3, 2001.
Nature's special Web focus on Toumaï, accompanied by a selection of classic paleontology papers.
The Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has a Web site on early human phylogeny, describing what is known about the relationships among early human species.