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Africa: Discovery of Skull Calls Previous Theories Of Man Into Question

Paleontologists exploring a previously ignored part of Africa have discovered a fossilized skull they believe is one of the oldest remnants ever found of a human ancestor. Scientists are ecstatic over the find, saying it provides a glimpse into a period on Earth of which almost nothing is known.

Prague, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A man-beast once roamed north-central Africa in what is now the Republic of Chad, bordering Libya and Niger. Neither human nor ape, it shared characteristics of both.

A team of paleontologists headed by French scholar Michel Brunet disclosed this week in the journal "Nature" that it had unearthed a nearly complete skull of this previously unknown creature. They date the skull at roughly 7 million years old.

To get an idea of how long a time that is, imagine that 7 million years were a single 24-hour period. Within that time frame, Jesus Christ was born 25 seconds ago.

To paleontologists, people who study prehistoric life forms, and anthropologists, those who study the nature of human beings, the find is a huge scientific event that helps further understand the origin of the human species.

"Nature's" paleontology editor Henry Gee, who engineered the publishing coup of announcing the find, says the skull reveals a creature unlike any seen before: an ape with a human face. "From the back it looks like a chimp. The brain cage looks like a chimp's. Well, with differences obviously, but that's mostly what it looks like. But the front bit is a surprisingly human face," Gee said.

In a way, Gee said, it brings to mind the fossils of a race of early man first found in 1856 in Germany's Neander Valley. "It has enormous beetling [overhanging] brow ridges that you kind of see in a cartoon Neanderthal man, which is much more recent still. I mean, Neanderthals didn't die out till 30,000 years ago," Gee.

It was a student member of Brunet's team who made the discovery. The team nicknamed the skull's owner Toumai, which means "hope of life" in Goran, one of the local languages.

Brunet, described by Gee as a "paleontologist's paleontologist," says he is awed by the discovery. "All these characteristics are human characteristics that enable us to confirm that this skull is related to the human branch and that in terms of our evolution it is very close to the beginning, the outset," Gee said.

Gee said the Chad find has enormous implications for the disciplines of paleontology and anthropology, for two principal reasons. "The first is that it comes from a period of time from which we know virtually nothing. This is frustrating because this period of time -- between about 10 and 6 million years ago -- was when the human family became its own entity, having split from the chimpanzees...or having split from what would become the chimpanzees," Gee said.

Information gained from Toumai, Gee said, is at variance with what once was believed about the course of human evolution. "But the second thing is, when you actually take a look at it, it is not what you would expect to find if you had a nice, cozy view of evolution that says, 'Here we are gently descending from something more apelike, and gradually acquiring more modern features.' The reason is, this is a shocking mixture of ancient and modern," Gee said.

It was inevitable that some writers would refer to Toumai as the long-sought evolutionary "missing link" between man and ape. In reality, Gee said, Toumai helps upset the notion of a single, identifiable missing link. "So, finally, what the significance of this is, is that you can't expect just to have a nice, neat missing-link kind of picture. If you did think so, after this stage you're going to find things that are startlingly unexpected," Gee said.

The Chad discovery, Gee and other scientists say, reinforces the widely held belief of anthropologists that human evolution was complex and, in a commonly used term in the field, "bushy." This means that, on the way from the common ancestors of chimpanzees and human beings, nature evidently experimented with many kinds of pre-humans and apes. And that, of the two branches that led finally to chimps and humans respectively, many trials failed and disappeared into the mists of time.

Gee said the discovery of Toumai will send researchers seeking fossils in parts of Africa -- and perhaps other continents -- that previously were ignored by paleontologists. As Gee described Brunet, he is one of those people who thinks, "Hmmm, maybe I should look outside the box."