The Japan Times
July 12, 2002


Chad bursting with pride over ancient skull

DENVER (AP) His name is Toumai, and he is the new cover-boy from the isolated central African republic of Chad. It means "hope of life" in the local Goran language.

At least for the next day or so, his black-toothed smile and furrowed, very prominent brow will appear on newsstands, Web sites and television broadcasts.

Not bad for a mosaic of fossilized bone fragments that scientists painstakingly reassembled to reveal an ancient skull with both ape and human features.

It could be as much as 7 million years old, making it the oldest example of a pre-human ancestor that walked upright. Scientists suspect he is the closet specimen yet to the evolutionary split between humans and apes.

In the Chadian capital of N'Djamena, French paleoanthropologist Michel Brunet introduced Toumai late Wednesday in a pomp-filled, standing room-only ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was aired on national television. Scientific details appeared in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The skull immediately became the chief source of pride for one of the world's poorest nations, a former French colony where the annual individual income is $240.

At least until a $3.7 billion oil pipeline begins exports within the next year.

The skull was discovered a year ago by a Chadian student, Ahunnta Djimdoumalbaye. The region remains beset by rebellions in the Sahara Desert mountains in the north and Brunet's team must work around land mines and other hazards.

"From this moment — 7 p.m. in Chad — the ancestor of humanity is Chadian," Brunet announced. "The cradle of humanity is in Chad. Toumai is your ancestor."

Chad President Idriss Deby solemnly responded, "Toumai is our ancestor."

The scientific name given to the species the skull represents is Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Toumai translates to "hope of life" in Africa's Goran language. The name usually is given to babies born before the dry season.

But the 50-year old Deby told his countrymen that he suggested the skull be named to honor a comrade in his Patriot Salvation Movement who also was named Toumai. The rebel fighter lived in the northern region where the fossil was discovered.

Deby seized power in a 1990 coup and has since won two disputed elections. He said his comrade was killed in the struggle to overthrow the French-backed Hissen Habre.

Brunet has been digging for hominid, or pre-human, fossils in Chad for 25 years with an international research team that now tallies 40 scientists.

POITIERS, France — French paleoanthropologist Michel Brunet holds a recently discovered 7-million-year-old hominid skull and a model of a chimpanzee skull, with which it shares certain features, in this undated photo. AFP-JIJI PHOTO

Roots of human fossil tree deepen — The oldest trace of a hominid has been discovered in the African nation of Chad. Analysis of the skull, reported in the journal Nature, indicates it comes from a species that walked upright as long as 6 to 7 million years ago. Its age falls at or near the split between the lineage leading to humans and the one that produced chimpanzees.

SOURCES: Dr. Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History; Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory; Nature