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In July of 2001, a group of archeologists discovered the skull and jaw bone of the oldest member of the human family. The skull is a new discovery and was found in the Djurab Desert of Northern Chad by a group of archeologists lead by Michel Brunet, and is thought to be six to seven million years old (Walton). The age of the skull and jaw bone were approximated through the association of the fauna that were found with the fossils (Brunet). The skull is a major find for archeologists because they now have a new piece of the puzzle that shows the evolution of humans from apes and it provides information to a period that scientists had very little knowledge about because of the lack of evidence (Whitfield).
The skull was given the scientific name: Sahelanthropus tchadensis and was nicknamed Toumai, which is a local name for a child born perilously close to the beginning of the dry season meaning “Hope of Life” (Walton). The skull has a mix of ape and hominid, early humans who are distinctly different from apes by their upright posture, features. The brain case is similar to those of apes, being about the size as a chimp, but the thick tooth enamel and the presence of small canines in the jaw bone are features that are similar to hominids. The most surprising part of the skull is the presence of the large brow ridges found on Toumai (Groves). This is unexpected because the next oldest hominid fossils have a small or non-existent brow ridges but our family, Homo, also has large prominent brow ridges (Gee).
These fossils are having a major impact on the scientific world’s view of human evolution and scientists may even have to rethink some present ideas about it. Because the skull of Toumai has characteristics that are very similar to those found in the Homo family, some scientists are beginning to question whether or not Australopithecus, an early member of the hominid family from about four to one million years ago and they are characterized by their fully upright posture and their small brain size, is even part of the evolution record of humans from apes. Bernard Wood, of George Washington University in Washington DC, argues that if Australopithecus has more ape-like features than the features found on an older
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There is much controversy over whether Toumai is really an early hominid or just an ape. Because there is no concrete evidence to support that Toumai was able to walk upright, a distinctive trait given to hominids, the scientists are unable to safely say that Toumai is an early hominid. Toumai’s “skull base is a bit distorted but the position of the condyles, which articulate the skull to the spine, and the foramen magnum, the hole through which the spinal cord enters the braincase, seems to be well back”(Groves). This suggests that the head was not resting on top of the spinal cord, making Toumai an upright hominid. By having the spinal cord coming from the back of the head, Toumai would have been more like an ape and would have walked on four legs.
It is difficult to officially make a statement whether or not Toumai walked upright because these parts of the skull are distorted which makes a finite reading of the position of the spinal cord difficult (Groves). As Brunet points out in his initial description of Toumai, “such an inference would not be unreasonable given the skull's other basicranial and facial similarities to later fossil hominids that were clearly bipedal” scientists cannot rule out the possibility of Toumai being an early hominid.
Brunet’s discovery of Toumai has shown that the split between early humans and apes, specifically chimpanzees, had occurred earlier then currently believed (Walton). Even if scientists find that Toumai is not an early hominid, but that he is just an early ape, the find is still a significant one because for the most part the fossil record is lost from ten million years ago when apes were abundant to about five million years ago when the first strong fossil records of hominids are available, and the fossil would give scientists an evolutionary link either from ancient apes to hominids or a link between the ancient apes and modern apes (Gee). Also the fact that the fossil was found in the Djurab Desert of Northern Chad, away from where the majority of discoveries of hominid fossils were occurring, Eastern and Southern Africa, shows that ancient apes and hominids were traveling across Africa, not just staying in one place (Whitfield). Whether or not Toumai is the oldest human ancestor, the find sheds light on a period in time where much light is needed to help us find and complete our family tree.
Bibliography/ Works Cited
Brunet, Michel et al. “A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa.” http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v418/n6894/full/nature00879_fs.html (3 April 2004).
Gee, Henry. “Toumai, Face of the deep: Earliest known record of human family turns up in Chad.” http://www.nature.com/nsu/020708/020708-11.html (4 April 2004).
Groves, Colin. “Toumai- The Hope of Life.” http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ss/stories/s605001.htm (4 April 2004).
“Monkey or Man? Toumai, hailed as our oldest ancestor, is stirring ancient scientific rivalries.” http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/10-9-2002-27886.asp?viewPage=2 (5 April 2004).
Walton, Marsha. “Ancient skull changes human origins.” http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/07/10/ancient.skull/?related (5 April 2004).
Whitfield, John. “Oldest member of human family found: New-found skull could sink our current ideas about human evolution.” http://www.nature.com/nsu/020708/020708-12.html (3 April 2004).
*The original Technical Article is the first listed