Michel Brunet has found a skull that?s between 6 and 7million years old in the African nation of Chad that he?snamed Touma?. The skull is the oldest human fossil everfound, and comes from the time when humans and chimpanzeeswere just becoming separate species.
Since this is the first time a skull this old has beendiscovered, "There must have been a group of apes knockingaround between 5 and 8 million years ago for which there's avery poor fossil record," says anthropologist Bernard Woodof George Washington University.
Touma? could change our ideas about human evolution."Anybody who thinks this isn't going to get more complexisn't learning from history," says Wood. "When I went tomedical school in 1963, human evolution looked like aladder" from monkey up to man with many intermediates inbetween, each slightly less like an ape than the one beforeit. Now we?re discovering all kinds of human fossils, fromancestors who all lived at the same time. Somehow one ofthem ?won? and became man - or else they interbred to createmodern humans.
Most fossils of ancient humans are less than three millionyears old. After Touma?, the next-oldest is 6-million-yearsold, and we only have a few teeth and bone scraps from him,so this find means we were around much earlier than wethought. "When I first saw the skull I thought, 'Gee, it's achimp'," says anthropologist Daniel Lieberman of Harvard. Acloser look "blew my socks off", he says.
Touma? may be primitive, but he?s definitely a hominid, notan ape. He has smaller canines and thicker tooth enamel thanapes. The point at the back of skull where neck musclesattach suggests that he walked upright. Many of Touma?'sadvanced features are actually missing from later fossils,but reappear in still later species that are classified asearly man.
The lesson in all this, Wood believes, is that we can?tjudge evolution solely by appearances. Hominid and apespecies probably mixed with each other when the two speciesfirst diverged, with the same traits evolving independentlyas they went their separate ways.
Lieberman thinks Touma? was a male because "It's got amassive brow ridge, the size of a large male gorilla, andyet it's just a little hominid." He says, "I'm willing tobet some money that this is a hominid." Tim White of theUniversity of California agrees, but Wood says, "My guess isthat it's neither a chimp nor a human ancestor - it's acreature that was living at the same time."
We?ll never solve this mystery unless we find more fossilsfrom the same period. The problem is, the forests thatchimps and our earliest ancestors liked to live in are notplaces where fossils are easily formed. For example, chimpsare certainly here today, but scientists have never locatedtheir fossil record.
But whether or not Touma? was one of us, he was at least anearly human precursor, which sets our history back evenfurther.
Despite the fact that we have evidence that man existed, andtraveled extensively, much earlier than scientists oncethought, many of them refuse to believe in ancienttechnology. Find out what our ancient ancestors really knewin ?From the Ashes of Angels? and ?The Gods of Eden? byAndrewCollins,clickhere.
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