At the southern fringes of the Saharan sand dunes, a team of
French scientists has come closer than ever before to finding the
holy grail of anthropology: the missing link between humans and
their ape forebears.
In one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, buffeted by
sand storms and seared by average high temperatures well over 100
degrees F. in summer, a 10-year mission has unearthed the complete
skull of what is believed to be the oldest human ancestor yet found -
between 6 million and 7 million years old.
It is one of the most significant discoveries in the history of
The skull sheds light on the crucial, yet largely unknown period
6 million to 10 million years ago, when the human lineage is thought
to have branched off from apes. Already, its characteristics and
location are forcing anthropologists to rethink their most basic
tenets - from where the human line originated to how and when it
The result, say scientists, will likely be one of the most fecund
periods of paleoanthropology, as researchers seek similar fossils
across Africa in an attempt to understand how this peculiar cranium
fits into the ever more complicated story of human evolution.
"This is the first time that we've been able to take a glimpse of
the world that connected us to the tree of life," says Bernard Wood,
an anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington.
"That's a pretty big deal."
Until now, that epoch had been an almost complete mystery.
Although it held the secrets of mankind's beginnings, all the
hominid fossils found from that time couldn't fill a locker at the
Lacking a fossil record to look at, many scientists held to the
traditional idea of human development: that human ancestors
originated in eastern Africa and - at least in the earliest years -
could be traced along a single ancestral line to today's Homo
The ancient skull, reported in this week's issue of the journal
Nature, emphatically refutes those notions.
For one, it is unlike anything scientists could have imagined,
with a strange mixture of a chimp-like brain case and a more human
face. The combination of features point to a diversity of hominids,
even at that earliest stage of development, with perhaps a half
dozen or so species all emerging at once.
"There was a lot of variation out there," says Daniel Lieberman,
an anthropologist at Harvard University who has seen the skull.
"We've been connecting the dots when most of the dots have been
What's more, it was found along the shores of a dry lake in the
country of Chad, 1,500 miles west of the east African rift valleys
often called "the cradle of humankind. …