It is a dispute that has taken a long time to reach boiling point. Seven million years after an apelike creature – since nicknamed Toumaï – traversed the landscape of modern Chad, its means of mobility has triggered a dispute among fossil experts. Some claim this was the oldest member of the human lineage. Others that it was just an old ape.
The row, kindled by a paper in Nature, last week led scientists to denounce opponents while others accused rivals of building theories on “less than five minutes’ observation” .
The core of the dispute is straightforward. Could Toumaï – which means “hope of life” in the local Daza language of Chad – walk on two feet, an ability that suggests it could indeed be the oldest member of the human family? The scientists who unearthed the fossil remains believe this is the case.
Others disagree, vehemently. They say Toumaï – a member of an extinct species known as Sahelanthropus tchadensis – was not bipedal but moved around on all fours like a chimpanzee. Claims of ancient human ancestry are false, they argue, accusing opponents of cherry-picking data.
The dispute is rancorous even for palaeontology, a field noted for the bitterness of its controversies over the interpretation of ancient skulls and bones. In this case, the dispute began with the 2001 discovery in the Djurab desert of a distorted skull and other bones by palaeontologists from France and Chad. They concluded the skull’s shape meant it must have belonged to a creature that walked upright. [Continue reading…]