"Man or Gorilla? Scientist Questions Skull Theory"


Fri Jul 12, 2002 --By John Chalmers

PARIS (Reuters) - A prehistoric skull touted as the oldest human remains ever found is probably not the head of the earliest member of the human family but of an ancient female gorilla, a French scientist said on Friday. Brigitte Senut of the Natural History Museum in Paris said certain aspects of the skull, whose discovery in Chad was announced on Wednesday, were actually sexual characteristics of female gorillas rather than indications of a human character.

Two other French experts cast doubt on the skull as Michel Brunet, head of the archeological team that discovered it, was due to present his findings at a news conference at Poitiers in western France. A self-confessed heretic amid the hoop-la over the skull, which dates back six or seven million years, Senut said its short face and small canines merely pointed to a female and were not conclusive evidence that it was a hominid.

"I tend toward thinking this is the skull of a female gorilla," she told Reuters in an interview. "The characteristics taken to conclude that this new skull is a hominid are sexual characteristics.

"Moreover, other characteristics such as the occipital crest (the back of the neck where the neck muscles attach)...remind me much more of the gorilla," she said, saying older gorillas also had these characteristics.

So little is known about the distant period of history represented by the skull that one scientist who has seen it told Nature magazine the discovery would have the impact of a "small nuclear bomb" among students of human evolution. The London-based journal broke the news on Wednesday.


The skull, discovered last year by an international team of palaeoanthropologists, has been nicknamed "Toumai," the name usually given in the central African country to children who are born close to the dry season.

Ten million years ago the world was full of apes and it was not until five million years later that the first good records of hominids -- or members of the human family, distinct from chimpanzees and other apes --appeared.

Senut contested the theory that Toumai represented the missing link of human evolution between the two benchmarks. The skull's braincase is ape-like, the face is short and the teeth, especially the canines, are small and more like those of a human. But she said these were characteristics of female gorillas and cited the case of a skull which was discovered in the 1960s and accepted for 20
years as that of a hominid before everyone agreed that it was a female.

French media have reported extensively on the skull, not least because it came to light after years of digging through the sand dunes of northern Chad by Brunet, a Frenchman from the University of Poitiers. Despite the national pride, Senut was not the only French scientist to raise questions about the hominid theory.

Yves Coppens of the College of France told the daily Le Figaro that the skull had an ambiguous shape, with the front looking pre-human and the back like that of a large monkey.

"The exact status of this new primate is not yet certain," he said. "Michel Brunet believes it is a pre-human, other respected palaeoanthropologists...see it as one side of the big primitive monkeys. "Others suggest a shared ancestry before the divide between hominids and monkeys took hold."

His colleague at the same institution, Pascal Picq, suggested that chemical research to establish Toumai's diet or a reconstruction of the skull by computer imaging could determine whether it was man or monkey, though for him it was "pre-human." But no one contests the significance of the discovery. "Even if it is a big monkey, it's even more interesting," Coppens said. "Because until now, in the genealogy of monkeys, there is a big missing link stretching over millions of years."

Copyright: Reuters

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