In January 1994, the National Centre for the Support of Research (CNAR) organised for Professor Michel Brunet, a palaeontologist at the University of Poitiers, a palaeontological expedition in the desert of Chad. On the basis of information provided to Alain Beauvilain by Louis Authosserre, hydrogeologist, and with the collaboration of his guide at Kouba Olanga, Mahamat Oueddey, eleven mammal sites were recognized east of Koro Toro spanning the period 3 to 4 million years ago.
At the beginning, these palaeontological surveys were largely facilitated by the use of the "Hydrogeological Reconnaissance Map at 1 / 500.000" Explanatory note of the sheet Pays Bas - Largeau " mapped by Jean-Louis Schneider and published in 1969 by the B.R.G.M. (Office of Geological and Mining Research).
In January 1995, a second expedition was organized with the aim of reconnoitering the Angamma Cliffs much further north, a region in which Professor Yves Coppens, had unearthed a hominid fossil in 1959, the famous Tchadanthropus uxoris, the "Man of Chad".
On Sunday, January 22, 1995, around 3 pm, two vehicles stopped approximately forty kilometres east of Koro Toro. They were returning from the Angamma Cliffs (literally "The Tombs Outside") in the north of the low country of the Chad Basin which the passengers had to leave because of extremely violent winds (more than 100 km / h recorded in Faya) without actually finding what they were looking for. By then they had travelled more than 3,000 kilometres since their departure from N'Djamena. They comprised the 1995 field team which in 1996 became the Franco-Chadian Palaeoanthropological Expedition.
This team consisted of Michel Brunet, Professor of Palaeontology at the University of Poitiers; Aladji Hamit Moutaye, geological engineer at the Mining Project, who provided a vehicle; Alain Beauvilain, geographer, in charge of the project " Chad Scientific Support for Research"; Najia Beauvilain, steward of this expedition; Mamelbaye Tomalta, driver from the Mining Project; Mahamat Oueddey, guide at Kouba Olanga and Mahamat, a trader, who had asked to be transported from Faya to N'Djamena.
The team was on its way back and, prompted by a suggestion from Alain Beauvilain, headed to the fossiliferous areas recognized the previous year, in order to assess the amount of erosion done by wind and rain in the meantime, the 1994 rains having been particularly heavy in the heart of the desert. It was thus that, from the top of a prominent sand ridge (named "Goz Kerki" which literally means "sandy cordon") that lined the shores of an ancient lake some six to ten thousand years ago, the driver of the first vehicle, Alain Beauvilain, observed dark masses in the distance lying on expanses of white sandstone. These were the fossilized bones of large animals that lived and died here three to four million years ago: ancestors of the extant elephants, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, horses, gazelles, ... but also crocodiles, turtles, fish, .. .. They were on what became known as KT 12, a fossil site a few hundred metres east of the sites mapped in 1994.
The end of that afternoon was devoted to the collection of large specimens while Alain Beauvilain set up a grid. A fragment of pig mandible gave a preliminary thrill to Professor Brunet but ... it was only a pig. Early on January the 23rd, under the gaze of nomads who had come to observe the curious activities of the visitors, each team member passed from square to square carefully examining every element that contrasted with the more or less regular surface of the ground. Mamelbaye Tomalta, who was ill, joined the work at about 8:45 am and almost immediately called Professor Brunet and pointed out to him a fossil lying upside down in the sand, so that he could excavate it. This fossil was the mandible of Abel, Australopithecus bahrelghazali.
Abel, Australopithecus bahrelghazali at the moment of it discovery the January 23, 1995 (photograph Alain Beauvilain)
In July 2000, an expedition east of the Bahr El Ghazal took place under very favorable climatic conditions. In the aftermath of the violent storm of July 14, 2000, which the expedition had experienced towards Salal, the sand had been compacted by the rain while a powerful monsoon had considerably cooled and humidified the air and at the same time, blowing in the opposite direction from the “Harmattan”, had smoothed out the sand ripples a few decimetres tall that this wind creates throughout the dry season. In addition to the sediments collected from a channel at the sites in the fossiliferous zone KL aged 4 to 5 million years, so that they could be sorted with the aid of a magnifying glass in N'Djamena with the objective of finding fossil micro-mammals (rodents, insectivores), on the way back this expedition had unearthed a hominid fossil mandible at the new site KT 40. Well south of KT 12, the KT 40 area was until then used as a rapid transit zone in order to get to N'Djamena as soon as possible. Without time constraints, it seemed interesting to explore close to the track. Good idea ... since no hominid had been discovered since January 1996.
Because the natural conditions were excellent, a new research expedition, comprising the same CNAR staff, was launched in July, 2001, by the CNAR with the support of French Cooperation Office. This expedition was to proceed to the fossiliferous zone west of the Bahr El Ghazal known as Toros-Menalla, first identified in 1997. The intention was to carry out a detailed palaeontological search of a small area located north and east of the previously mapped fossil sites. The interest of this small sector lay in its topographic position at the foot of the only important escarpment in the region extending for several tens of kilometres, which is clearly indicated on topographic maps of the IGN, and where the outcrops are therefore older. Despite this potential it had not been possible to convince the expatriate scientists on the team to attach any importance to it.
Also, even though it was very close to our tracks to the main sites of Toros-Menalla, but separated from them by a dune system, a vast unmapped area remained to be checked, because we had been prevented from visiting it due difficulties of access, especially soft sand exposed in ripples. The expected rain, the effects of the monsoon on the sand ridges and the small amount of equipment carried by a four-man expedition were hoped to facilitate prospecting. Alas, because of the lack of rain, the temperatures were extreme as shown by data from the Faya climatological station, an oasis located about 250 kilometres from the area examined: temperatures in the shade, minimum between 23.5 ° C July 17th and 30 ° C on the 12th, maximum between 41 ° C on July 19th and 44.3 ° C on July 14th and 15th; ground temperatures: minimum between 20.5 ° C on July 13th and 28 ° C on the 11th, maximum between 50.5 ° C on July 11th and 58 ° C on July 14th and 16th; relative humidity at 6 o’clock, minimum July 12th with 11%, maximum July 20th with 58%, relative humidity at 12 o’clock, minimum July 17th with 8%, maximum July 19th with 30%.
During the trip, to the high temperatures was progressively added higher and higher relative humidity but never enough to bring the rain. In contrast, the nights were frequently disturbed by violent thunderstorms, swirling winds carrying drops of water from the centre of the thunderstorms, which however were located a hundred kilometres away.Thanks to a new more direct route, the July 9th expedition from N'Djamena arrived at the fossil zone at 1 pm on July 10th. After examining a number of known sites, which yielded new fossils, and discovering new sites, the expedition went to the new area on July 14th. Particularly rich fossil sites were discovered. Thus, on July 16th and 17th the vehicles did not move because the days were devoted to compiling the field catalogue and packing many fossils. These sites appeared to be true cemeteries, containing Anthracotheriidae (animals intermediate between pigs and hippopotami that went extinct some 5 million years ago) and Hippopotamidae perfectly preserved, all found at the new sites TM 254 to TM 260. These sites, which are very close to each other because they are separated only by barkhans (crescent dunes) comprise in fact a small fossiliferous area. A dozen kilometres were travelled on July 18th, a day during which five sites were discovered. The evening camp was installed on a dune overlooking a vast site, which was then rapidly prospected.
On July 19th at sunrise, the fossiliferous area to be prospected was divided between the four men. Almost immediately, in the vicinity of fossils of anthracotheres and Anancus (Proboscidians or "ancient elephants"), Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye uncovered a particularly well-preserved skull of a hominid. Thus, one year and one day after uncovering a new hominid mandible at sites between 3 and 4 million years east of the Bahr el Ghazal, the same field team from the National Center for the Support of Research uncovered the fifth Chadian fossil hominid 200 kilometers further west from much older deposits. It was Toumaï, Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The presence of anthracotheres and Anancus, recently eroded from the sandstone sediment in which they were preserved, made us realise immediately that, at the new site of TM266, we were in the presence of fossils more than five million years old.
July 19th was devoted to inventorying and packing the finest fossils from this site under extreme weather conditions: 31° C and 53% relative humidity at 6 o’clock, 40.5° C and 30% humidity at mid-day in Faya, maximum ground temperature of 55° C ... A total of 141 fossils were catalogued.
Packing and cataloging fossils from TM 266 on July 19th, 2001 during early
afternoon with the temperature at ground level of 55° C (photograph Alain Beauvilain).
Toumaï, who had spent the whole day at his discovery locus, was packed last around 5 pm after having, in a manner of speaking, supervised the work all day long.
Packing and cataloguing fossils collected near Toumai in the early evening of July 19th, 2001. From left to right, Mahamat Adoum, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye and Fanoné Gongdibé. The skull is between Ahounta’s legs and the femur is at the base of the broad brush. (photograph Alain Beauvilain).
The packing of the skull which would later be baptized Toumaï,
Sahelanthropus tchadensis, is carried out last (photograph Alain Beauvilain).
The following night was the worst experienced during all the palaeoanthropological expeditions. Thunderstorms, increasingly threatening, criss-crossed the sky to the south with flashes of lightning, while violent swirling winds charged with drops of water rendered it difficult to find a protected place to sleep. In the morning, all the equipment was under sand which had drifted during the night, the vehicles tilted sideways by wind deflating the sand under them, while a monsoon blast, more powerful than the strongest sandstorm, crossed the plain.
The finely calculated water supply was no longer sufficient to extend this expedition, so the two vehicles, very heavily loaded with the 560 beautiful fossils that have just been unearthed, then returned to N'Djamena starting on July 20th. In addition to the TM 267 site, a brief reconnaissance underlined the immense fossil potential of this sector.
That was when the problems began. A tyre on the vehicle carrying the skull of what would become known as Toumaï burst after less than five kilometres which was inconvenient because, in order to limit the weight of vehicles, only two spare wheels had been carried. Around 12 o'clock, the radiator of the same vehicle started boiling. The cause was never elucidated but the problem resolved itself and it did not happen again. In the evening, the expedition camped a short distance south of Salal. On the 21st, around 4.30 am, the bivouac was hastily lifted, because a powerful storm threatened. The vehicles began to drive in the dark of dawn but very quickly the storm unleashed itself turning the Bahr el Ghazal into a torrent of water and mud. It rained until noon! After having to tow the vehicle which carried the future Toumai which was stuck in a rut, then later emptying the water from a pond into which the vehicle had slid, at dusk the expedition reached Moussoro having travelled 160 kilometres in 15 hours. On the 21st, a second tire exploded between Massakory and Massaguet .... The run of bad luck stopped there. In Massaguet, the two vehicles got onto the freshly paved road from Djermaya to Massaguet whereas, in the low ground at the side of the road, a whole series of vehicles were stuck in the mud. The four expeditions which followed until March 2002, did not experience any punctures or other breakdowns. Did Toumai fight not to leave the land where he was born and where his parents lived? We thus promised to go and get his parents and it would be these four members of the July 2001 team who would find them.
Pulling the vehicle out of the mud on July 21st (photograph Alain Beauvilain).
"From the top of the dunes surrounding site 265 that they had climbed to scan the horizon, Mahamat Adoum and Fanoné Gongdibé discovered a vast exposed surface, and that's how we came to site 266 about 5 pm. We got there and we settled in. Alain Beauvilain and Fanoné immediately went down to inspect the area. As for Mahamat and me, we just did a little tour in the immediate vicinity of the vehicles then we went back to unpack the beds and other equipment for our bivouac. From 7 am a sandstorm started the intensity of which increased until it dropped from 16 hours, the night of the 18th to 19th remained calm.
On the morning of the 19th, we got up and as usual we took our coffee and then, as a precaution, we arranged our luggage in the vehicles in case a sandstorm surprised us while we were out prospecting. And Fanoné left very early, heading towards the southern part of the site. Alain and Mahamat drove the vehicles to the top of a dune and then directed their search north. I prepared myself, took my material and spontaneously followed Fanoné.
Immediately I went to work but I did not see anything like a fossil. Then I saw a kind of ball enclosed in a black gangue, there, right in front of me. I do not know why the thing caught my attention. Still, I approached it and from a few metres, I noticed two rows of teeth, the object being upside down. I wondered what it could be. A suid maxilla (family of pigs) surely. I touched it, and I found the thing very weird because it was totally encrusted.
I picked the object up from the ground because it was stuck to the layer on which it was placed. I turned it over and it was at that moment that I realized that, between the mass of concretions that covered it, the other side exposed a surface of bone. And when I turned the thing that I held in my hands round I saw the two orbits, the nasal fossa and the teeth now turned towards me.
In view of the shape of the teeth, the orbits and the nasal cavity, it can only be an ape" I said to myself, avoiding thinking in terms of primate or hominid while waiting for the opinion of specialists. I was quickly relieved because in January 1999, during my first expedition with Professor Brunet's team, he said: "Ahounta, you're going to find it. If there is a primate here, I'm sure it's you who will find it". I initially took it for a joke and did not believe it, then a little later when he was getting into the vehicle that was to take him to N'Djamena after an attack of dysentery, he repeated to me: "It's you who will find him." And I said to him: "If it pleases God". And ever since that day, when I set foot in the desert, I feel a certain pressure and I ask God to help me to make such a discovery. In a way I felt that I had fulfilled the prediction of Professor Brunet.
So I was alone with the skull. I looked at it then tried to see if there was a fragment left behind where I had picked it up. Then I looked back at it to contemplate it.
Then I woke up and turned around to make signs to Fanoné who was not far away but knew nothing of what I was going through. I finally succeeded; he came to my level and I shouted to him "It's a victory! We have what we are looking for!" (N'Djaména Bi-hebdo, n ° 603, Monday 15th - Wednesday 17th July 2002.