Alain Beauvilain : Toumaï, l’aventure humaine. Editions de La Table Ronde, Paris, 2003, 239 pages, 23 photographs. ISBN 2-7103-2592-6.
Price 2003 of the Overseas Sciences Academy (France)
Nodé-Langlois Fabrice : "True history of Toumaï". Paris, March 11, 2003, p. 26.
DOCUMENT on July 19th, 2001, a French and three Chadians discover our older ancestor.
In exclusiveness, extracts and photographs of their account
The cranium of Toumaï, old more than 6 million years old, as it was at the time of its discovery, and never presented to the public, capped with a sandstone crust blackened by manganese. (Photography Alain Beauvilain)
There was Lucy, the grandmother of all us. Today there is Toumaï. Its complete fossilized cranium, a man more than 6 million years old, made the headlines last July in the British scientific review of reference, Nature, but also of the media of the entire world. A new candidate for the oldest human ancestor had been just baptized. The scientific name of this new species discovered one year ago : Sahelanthropus tchadensis, in reference to these which lived, 3 million years before Lucy, in the desert of Chad, 2 500 km west of the Rift valley, hitherto regarded as the cradle of humanity.
The scientific father of Toumaï is French, Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers. His smile completed with beard also appeared in the world press last summer. For this paleontologist, already discoverer in 1995 of the jaw of Abel, the first Australopithecus found in West Africa, Toumaï crowns a career carried out with tenacity and perseverance from the Afghan valleys to Cameroon. For the public, but also a number of journalists, it is whithout doubt, the valiant Poitevin who discovered the cranium of Toumaï.
The readers of Le Figaro know that historical reality is different (1). It is the human shutter of this adventure which the work published the day after tomorrow by the editions La Table Ronde (2). The author is not Michel Brunet, but one of the discoverers on the ground, Alain Beauvilain.
This 19 July 2001, when the hominid cranium was seen in the sandstones of Djurab, Michel Brunet, head of the Franco-Chadian Paleontology Mission, was in Poitiers. This day, in the furnace of the Sahara, pushing forward the prospection of fossiliferous sites, reduced to the minimum, included only two cars and four men: three Chadians, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, Fanoné Gongdibé, Mahamat Adoum, and a Frenchman, Alain Beauvilain. It is the young person Ahounta, Bachelor student at the university of Djamena, specialist in the sorting of tiny fossil teeth, who found Toumaï.
Michel Brunet, on several occasions, qualified Ahounta as "the best fossil hunter in the team". In spite of this recognition, he and especially his three companions will be largely occulted from the press kit announcing the discovery, diffused in July 2002. And, more largely, almost erased from history.
Alain Beauvilain, geographer, author of a thesis on the north of Cameroon, is of those researchers who have Africa under their skin. After having taught at the university of Yaounde (1978 to 1989), he was in service at N'Djamena. He fells in love with the Chadian desert, for so long prohibited for science by the war and mines, and he organized twenty-eight scientific missions of prospection, most of them in search of fossils.
The first part of ‘Toumaï, the Human Adventure’ plunges us deep into the Djurab, this 19th July 2001. With simplicity, the geographer recounts the emotion of the first meeting with the Ancestor. He also details how him and his comrades pack the fossils in toilet paper, or recycle the mineral water bottles to protect the smallest samples, how the vehicles get stuck in the sand, or in the mud when the rain, as rare asit is violent, floods the Sahara. Alain Beauvilain continues with the events leading up the discovery, and recalls the circumstances when in January 1992 he invited Michel Brunet, who hunt the dinosaur in Cameroon, to give a conference to N'Djamena. In January 1994, the paleontologist from Poitiers carried out his first mexpedition in the Chadian Desert. The north of the country is depicted by the author as a natural and human inheritance as ignored as it is attractive, with its giant volcanic craters and its singular cave paintings.
The second part of the work is less exciting. It however shows at which point a discovery of the scale of that of Toumaï is the fruit of patience and perseverance, and how much the man must remain humble vis-a-vis the desert. As a geographer, Beauvilain explains how the wind and sand expose and cover the fossiliferous layers, and how he gradually learned to read the Djurab that he loves so much. The former "technical assistant" of the franco-chadian paleontology expeditions takes good care not to delve into the specialist debate about the identity of Toumaï : human ancestor or guenon ancestor of the gorillas? This controversy is just briefly mentioned.
In the months which followed the discovery of Toumaï, the atmosphere on the ground will be spoiled. At the time of the first return to the site "TM266", in October 2001, two researchers were added to the quartet of discoverers. One day, when examining the fossiliferous field with a fine comb, Beauvilain pointed out to one of these scientists from France who had just passed by the cheek teeth of a large herbivore, the Deinotherium, without seeing them. "If you knew what one tells on your back, you would make like me : to pass without seeing. Let the paleontologists find the fossils ", says him one. It is all there. The geographer, qualified as an "employee" in a mail of Michel Brunet, then tells the adventures which preceded the media advertisement last summer. To finish on a bitter note: "With my family I left Chad on December 31, 2002, after having worked twenty-four years in Central Africa. Professor Michel Brunet arrives at N'Djamena January 5, 2003. It will be his seventh mission in the desert. A photographer joined him on the 12th. Provided with a cast of Toumaï, they left on the 14th to discover TM266... "
This adventure, above all is that of the author, a geographer who worked in Africa for thirty years, and who devoted much effort on the promotion of natural sciences in Chad. The main part of this book is devoted to his field expeditions in the hostile environment of the Chadian Desert, confronted with extreme temperatures, difficulty of travelling, sandstorms, and equipment failures. Despite all these obstacles, the great satisfaction which discovery yields is often present, and Alain Beauvilain can speak about it without useless emphasis.
If the adventure finishes rather badly for the author, it is not because of an inhospitable environment, but because of human nature in some of its not very attractive aspects. When paleontological research started in Chad in the 1990's Alain Beauvilain contributed significantly to it but our geographer notes that cohabitation with certain paleontologists from France was as easy as it was with geologists, when it was a question of exploring the volcanos of Tibesti or the meteoritic craters lost in the middle of the desert. When the scientific stakes go up with the discovery of hominid remains, the resulting atmosphere is degraded, where abuse of power becomes the order of the day, discourtesy, and the mania for secrecy. July 19th, 2001, at the time of a field expedition with three Chadians, one of them, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, a student of natural science, discovered the well preserved cranium of an ancient hominid, which became universally known under the name of Toumaï (following a questionable fashion for giving nicknames to paleontological specimens), and who will be introduced as the earliest known representative of the human line (even if other interpretations were proposed). Things then turn really bad, because the cranium was not found by "the right" people. To some extent the scenario of discovery is not what was wanted in certain circles of French paleontology. Alain Beauvilain then discovered the sordid aspects of the small world of the paleoanthropology : it will be necessary for him to undergo vexations, administrative (even political) pressures, the rewriting of history, all driven by a thirst for being glory in the media. Everyone knows that scientists are no more saintly than other men, but this account leaves a feeling of indisputable disgust. Perhaps some people will regret that Alain Beauvilain did not throw a modest veil over the matter which really lacks elegance, but it is not useless to reveal such behaviour, known in scientific circles, but often ignored by the public. And if anyone feels that they were wrongly criticized, then nothing is to prevent them presenting their own version of the facts.
The press tells us that attempts were made to withraw the book, which is definitely disturbing, from sale. Thus hasten to read it, it is edifying.
(Historians and Geographers), 2004, n° 386.
Alain Beauvilain, geographer, doctor and senior lecturer in Paris X-Nanterre, remained twenty-four years in Central Africa, where he undertook his work of thesis and taught many years at the University of Yaounde. At the following day of the disorders in the North of Chad and the Françoise Claustre afffair, he took part in at the side of local researchers and French teachers on expediion, with the location of the fossiliferous deposits revealed by erosion in the ancient sediments of the Chadian basin until the discovery of "Toumaï" the subject of this book. Conceived like a detailed account, almost from day to day, the patient search of layers and the collecting of the most interesting parts without anything to hide the difficulties of the task in the middle of the desert, the work thus patiently carries out us from one campaign to the other until the event which, in July 2001, rewarded this collective search: the discovery of a complete cranium of Australopithecus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, west of the great African Rift!
The work, abundantly illustrated, is in four parts. The first, around fifty pages long, reports "the discovery of Toumaï", reports the circumstances leading up to it and recalls the other lucky finds which prepared the way since the find in January 1995 of "Abel", Australopithecus barhelghazali, in the north of the country, a good quarter century after the discovery in 1961, by Yves Coppens, of "Tchadanthrope". There follows a chapter packed with "the start of the researches", an occasion to evoke their slow progression and the accompanying efforts carried out in parallel in the capital for "developing the acquired knowledge and to restore it to the authorities and the Chadian population '' (p. 60 to 149). In the third part, "the research of the parents", that is to say a new thorough examination of the discovery site in search of other evidence of human presence and of "biogeochronologic markers" in a satisfactory quantity with, in conclusion, some elements of interpretation proposed by the author who, one must remember, is not a specialist in paleontology.
The work ends with about fifty pages evoking the immediate repercussions of the event, at the local and international levels, as well as the efforts of the discovery team to avoid being robbed of their discovery. Because the history from then on, becomes rather rocambolesque and, vis-a-vis at the obvious risk of collecting notoriety, one includes/understands better the reasons behind the meticulous description of the successive excavation campaigns which comprises the heart of the book. The goal is to testify, indeed, to the eyes of the world, the quality of the sustained effort and the role played in the discovery of the oldest fossil hominid by a welded team of obstinated researchers thus refuting, even with the consent of Yves Coppens, of the scenario of the "East Side Story" which he erected a scaffolding on the basis of the many human fossils until then discovered in East Africa.