- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

LONDON The human family tree is facing a dramatic overhaul after the discovery of a creature that walked the earth 7 million years ago, close to the split between our ancestors and apes.
Fossil hunters believe that the Chad ape-man is the oldest member of the human family to be discovered and could fill in a crucial evolutionary missing link.
Described by one expert as "the most important fossil discovery in living memory," it could push back the divergence of human and chimp ancestors by at least a million years.
The creature has been named Toumai, or "hope of life" in the Goran language, a name usually given to Chadian children born close to the dry season. Its official name is Sahelanthropus.
The size of a modern-day chimpanzee, it lived 2 million years before the next accepted hominid the branch of the family tree that includes humans and ape-men. It combined features of primitive apes with more advanced characteristics found in later hominids.
Henry Gee, paleontology editor of Nature, in which the find has been reported, said: "Toumai is arguably the most important fossil discovery in living memory, rivaling the discovery of the first ape-man 77 years ago the find that effectively founded the modern science of paleoanthropology."
The discovery of a nearly complete cranium, two lower jaw fragments and three teeth is reported by a team led by Michel Brunet and Patrick Vignaud from the University of Poitiers, France.
The remains were uncovered in the vast Djurab desert in North Chad by Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, an undergraduate student at the University of N'Djamena. They belonged to at least five individuals.
Toumai's brain case was shaped like an ape's, but its face was short and its teeth were small like a human's.
It had prominent brow ridges suggesting that the creature could have sidestepped the African hominids that lived between 5 million and 2 million years ago. Alternatively, the ridges could have evolved twice, independently, in hominid history.
Mr. Brunet described the find as "a wonderful discovery." He said: "It's a lot of emotion to have in my hand the beginning of the human lineage. I have been looking for this for so long. I knew I would one day find it."
The find opens a lot of new questions, Mr. Brunet said. The next-oldest skull found belonged to a creature 4 million years later, and researchers do not know what happened in between, he said. "But with this new guy and species we have the beginnings of new knowledge. This is just the beginning of our knowledge of the human lineage."
Bernard Wood, a George Washington University professor, said it would be a "tall order" to pick out the genuine human ancestor from other similar apes between 5 million and 7 million years old.
"It is a good candidate for being the ancestor of all later hominids and, of the few fossils known from this time, it is the best fit to an ancestor," he said.
"But it is also possible that it is a cousin of later humans and that its humanlike features evolved in parallel with our own."


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