Meet the Oldest Member of the Human Family

Essay by dimsy December 2003

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Meet the Oldest Member of the Human Family

In July 2002, an international team led by French paleontologist Michel Brunet announced the discovery of a humanlike skull that may be up to seven million years old, twice as old as any others found. The previously unknown ape species, named Sahelanthropus tchadensis, was found in Chad, in central Africa. The remarkably complete skull was nicknamed "Toumai," which means, "hope of life" in the Goran language. The skull's human-like face and teeth are surprising since they come from a period when researchers believed human ancestors just began evolving. It is not known whether Toumai was bipedal or not. Brunet et al. say that it would be a not unreasonable inference that it was a habitual biped because it shares characteristics with other hominids known to be bipedal. The skull is said to be that of a male because of its surprising combination of primitive and advanced features.

Along with the fact that it comes from around the time when the hominids are thought to have diverged from chimpanzees, suggests it is close to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. According to the view of Bernard Wood of George Washington University, the chief significance of the Sahelanthropus find is not the issue of whether it's a human ancestor, but the clues it offers into the unsuspected diversity of ancient fossil hominids. That might be the most amazing thing about Toumai: that humans can peer into their own beginnings, and see themselves emerging from the long dark night of the forest.