Chad, Cradle of Humanity ?

With Australopithecus bahrelghazali (Abel) and Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Toumaï), two hominids fossils, Chad is a potential Cradle of Humanity

Chronicle of Toumai's femur rediscovery

More Details in the French Version : Tchad berceau de l'humanité ?
see also : Meteorite Impacts in the Borkou and Ennedi (Chad)

On 19 July 2001, early in the morning of the last day of an expedition to the so-called Toros Menalla fossil zone, a team of four men, three Chadians (Mahamat Adoum, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, Fanon Gongdibe) and a Frenchman (Alain Beauvilain, who led the expedition) expose the complete head (skull plus mandible) of a hominid which, a year later, would become the holotype of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, aka Toumaï.

They were proud of this discovery, the importance of which they immediately understood given the nearby presence of fossils of ancient mammals (Anancus and anthracotheres). These four men then decided to dedicate the morning to collecting the most significant identifiable parts among the thousands of fossils scattered over several hectares. Passing and repassing at a distance from their pride, whose skull they placed upright so that it could watch them work, they were convinced that they had collected one of the oldest hominids brought to light and, what is more, a complete particularly well-preserved head. The cataloguing and packing of these specimens was done in the shade of one of the vehicles at the beginning of the afternoon. The end of the day was reserved for the collection, cataloguing and packing of all the fossils found near the head. The climatic conditions were extreme, heat, high relative humidity, absence of wind (see Alain Beauvilain, “Toumaï the Human Adventure”, publisher 'La Table Ronde').

The precise context and position of the hominid skull raised many questions because the associated fossils were arranged in a very particular way. Among the fossils present in the immediate vicinity of the skull, there are numerous long bones. For once, the bones of this type were systematically collected and catalogued because the four men were convinced that they had also found long bones of the limbs of this hominid. They were excited at the prospect that palaeontologists would have the opportunity to analyse them and were fully aware of the exceptional luck of having found the skull and limb bones together.

While the skull is cataloged TM266-01-60 (plus 1 for the skull and 2 for the mandible), the following bones are numbered 61 'distal femur', 62 'long bone', 63' long bone', 64 'distal femur ', 65' humerus fragment ', 66' femur fragment ', 67' scapula ', 68' scapula ', 69' long bone with marks, 70 'long bone', 71 'distal tibia', 72 'tibia several fragments , ... up to 141 (37 bones termed 'long bone', 'femur', 'tibia' and 8 astragali, 5 phalanges, 3 calcanea as well as horn cores, hemi-mandibles and skull of a bovid). On account of their size and shape, these fossils belong to various species of mammals, but it is not up to these four men, none of whom are palaeontologists, to identify in the field the species collected when there may be doubt. That's why, because of their great experience of the field, a total of 70 expeditions, they were satisfied to mention 'long bone' all the while keeping an informed eye on this fossil 25 centimetres long.

fe?mur toumai

The left femur of Sahelanthropus tchadensis (photographs Aude Bergeret).

It is "long bone n° 63" that will prove in 2004 to be a hominid femur and we here describe the history of its 'rediscovery'. The presence of a hominid femur so close to a hominid skull is fundamental for assessing the locomotor repertoire of the hominid and we therefore expected that priority would be given to its description. Any delay inevitably raises questions.

At the end of July 2001, given the importance of the fossils brought back to N'Djamena by the team from the National Center for Support of Research (CNAR), the highest Chadian authorities asked Professor Michel Brunet to come and collect the skull himself and to select for export other fossils from the ensemble which he, and he alone, judged to be of top priority for the study.

Among the first batch of fossils exported is a badly damaged fragment of a fossil hominid mandible (TM 247-01-02: fragment of right mandibular body containing the roots of P/3-M/3) which would be published as belonging to Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

Among the long series of fossils collected in the immediate vicinity of the skull, only fossils n° 60 (1 and 2), 69, 89 (proximal femur), 127 and 128 (horn cores), 129 (skull fragment with horns), 131, 133, 134 and 136 (hemi-mandibles), 140 (distal metapodial) were included by Professor Brunet in the first batch exported at the end of August 2001, together with 15 fossils found further afield. Other long bones, the study of which seemed to have priority to other members of the team, would only be exported later, including n° '63'.

This long bone diaphysis, of an aspect never previously observed during the project and the largest and best preserved fossil among those present in the 'tomb' of Toumaï with the exception of the skull itself, but also the closest to the head, was not among the fossils exported as a priority despite repeated suggestions by Fanoné Gongdibé and Alain Beauvilain to study it without delay.

In effect, given its dimensions, this diaphysis was evidently from a mammal weighing several tens of kilograms. Whatever the case, it was a crucial element for future scientific analysis because this post-cranial bone could either belong to the hominid skull or to an unknown animal from the fauna in which this hominid lived.

export fossiles 8.2001.p1

export fossiles 8.2001.p2

Very surprised that no long bones found close to the skull were considered to belong to the same individual, Alain Beauvilain ironised in Volume 100, September / October 2004 of the South African Journal of Science: ' Considering the excellent preservation of the Toumaï cranium, a careful examination of these bones should yield interesting information, as we consider it likely that postcranial fossils of a large primate may be present at the site, although nothing has been reported until now’.

He did not yet know that the existence of a hominid femur was unexpectedly revealed in February 2004 in the palaeontology laboratory of the University of Poitiers by a student preparing a 2nd year MSc thesis on taphonomy, Mrs Aude Bergeret, assisted by a teacher - the palaeoanthropologist Professor Roberto Macchiarelli – neither of whom were members of the Franco-Chadian Palaeontology Expedition, at the time in Chad filming reconstructions of the discovery of Toumaï.

It would take five years before the femur of a hominid found close to the skull of Toumai to would see the light of day through two published articles, one in French, the other in English and seven more years before Professor Brunet would publicly acknowledge the existence of the femur of Toumaï.

Chronicle of this 'rediscovery'

La Recherche

La Recherche n° 432 July 2009


« Le fémur de Toumaï

Eight years after the discovery of the skull of the oldest known hominid, an unpublished photograph revealed that a femur of the same species was found simultaneously. Why hasn't it been published?

The skull of Toumaï is considered by many palaeontologists to be that of the oldest known hominid, Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The position of the hole connecting to the vertebral column indicates that it was probably a biped (1). But to know how it walked would require one of the leg bones. Unfortunately, none was found at the site, as stated by the CNRS in 2002 (2). However, a photograph from the day of the discovery has now been published in a Normandy review (pictured above) (3). It shows the skull posed on the sand next to a bone, designated as the femur of a hominid. What many palaeontologists privately knew for several years is now in the public domain (4). Why did this announcement not follow normal publication channels?

First of all, it was Alain Beauvilain who published this photograph. This French geographer was in charge of logistics for the Franco-Chadian Palaeoanthropology Expedition, initiated and directed by Michel Brunet, today at the College de France. The first was dismissed at the request of the second for having announced the discovery to the press before its scientific publication. Since then, several differences have arisen between the two men. Alain Beauvilain claims that he took this picture immediately after the discovery of the skull at 7:30 am on July 19, 2001. The one who made the discovery, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, disputes this version: "This photograph could only have been taken after 11 am, when Alain Beauvilain, who was working in another part of the site, joined us, my colleague Fanoné Gongdibé (deceased in 2007) and me. It shows the bones we found in the morning and gathered on the sand. The skull was not discovered like that, but was encased in concretions ".

Is the bone in the photo really the femur of a hominid? And why wasn't it published along with the skull? According to Aude Bergeret, at present the Director of the Musée de la Haute-Auvergne in Saint-Flour, who in 2004 carried out research in Michel Brunet's laboratory at Poitiers, it is because, at the beginning of 2004, it had not been identified. At that time she was studying the fossilization of animal bones found at the Toumaï site, when she solicited the opinion of one of her professors on this subject, who happened to be passing by: "During the conversation, he noted that the bone, the species of which had not yet been identified, was not the femur of an ordinary animal, but was that of a hominid. He then alerted a woman researcher in the laboratory. This bone, which I had many times in my hands, is indeed that figured in the photograph."

As for Michel Brunet, questioned about the presence of a hominid femur on the site, he left the door open: "In Chad, we uncovered thousands of bones which are under study. Perhaps there are hominid bones, but I only comment on what has been published in a scientific journal.

Nicolas Constans

1) 'Tout sur Toumaï, l'ancêtre des humains', La Recherche, juin 2005, page 25.

3) A. Beauvilain and J.-P. Watté, Bull. Soc. géol. Normandie amis Mus. Havre, 96, 1, 19, 2009
4) (May 19, 2009) 

référence à laquelle nous rajoutons (July 3, 2009)

La Recherche n° 434 October 2009


"A bone in the photo

We would like to point out several things concerning the article "Toumai's Femur" (La Recherche No. 432, page 18). First of all, a photo of this bone was published online in the United States. Its existence can no longer be denied. In addition the skull was not in situ as it was eroded on both sides. It lay among various fossils oriented along two lines, near others dated from 5 to 10 million years ago. Our hypothesis is that a Muslim gathered bones together to bury what he thought was a dead person.

Finally Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye said that the pictures were taken at 11 o'clock, which gave him time to align the fossils. The long shadow clearly visible in the photographs shows that the photos were taken early in the morning. 

Lastly, in 2001 Alain Beauvilain, Doctor of Geography, was coordinator of palaeontological activities in the Republic of Chad.

Alain Beauvilain and Jean-Pierre Watté.

Answer by Nicolas Constans

The purpose of the article was to inform our readers of the existence of this fossil, never made public until now. It is not up to us to decide between the versions of Alain Beauvilain and Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye as to the conditions of the discovery. "

These points need to be highlighted because Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye's information to Nicolas Constans was made not from Chad, but Ahounta having come to Poitiers, was made by telephone from Professor Brunet’s office in his presence.

Discovering Toumai at the National Museum of Chad, with Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye

Fortunately, fifteen years after the discovery of Toumai, questioned from the new National Museum of Chad, Ahounta remembers better the exact conditions of the update of the skull.

Musee N'Djame?na

Excerpt dated January 25, 2016:

"In 2001, only 3 years after my entry into the program, during a very minimalist mission (we were only four researchers, with two 4X4 vehicles: Fanoné Gongdibé, Mahamat Adoum, Alain Beauvilain and myself). And it was only on the last day of the mission, at 7 am, that we found Toumaï's skull".

Meanwhile, in 2011, John Reader, in 'Missing Links. In Search of Human Origins' (Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain, 538 pages), his important richly illustrated synthesis of hominid fossils which have marked the history of the origin of mankind and the conditions of their discovery, we read on page 372:


"Wether or not Beauvilain and Watté have made a valid case for Toumaï's recent burial the photographs where provocative -not lease because among the bones they identified and labelled where several that could have belonged to Toumaï himself, including a femur.

This revelation came as a surprise to most of those following the saga of Sahelanthropus. Why hadn't the photograph been published earlier ? If post-cranial remain had been found close to the skull, possibly belonging to it, wouldn't they be an important test of the specimen's hominid status ? And a femur -wasn't that precisely what had been called for to settle the question of wether or not Toumaï was bipedal and therefore the earliest known hominid -oldest man ?"

Numerous scientific debates around the Orrorin femur clearly demonstrate the interest of describing the 'femur of Toumaï'.


The Rediscovery of the 'Femur of Toumai'.

It is Professor Roberto Macchiarelli that 'rediscovers' the femur of Toumaï in February 2004 (Symposium Prospectives CNRS –INEE 2017).

"The femur of Toumai was collected more than 15.5 years ago, on July 19, 2001 [5,6], in association with the remains attributed a year later to the new taxon Sahelanthropus, of which skull TM 266-01-060 is the holotype [7] Labeled 'TM 266-01-063 Indet. Long bone' in the MPFT inventory [8] and, at the time, not recognized either anatomically or taxonomically, this specimen was only identified in February 2004, at the University of Poitiers (by a student in DEA and by myself), during a taphonomic prospection of a batch of remains selected to be cut the next day for mineralogical analyzes (some details of this 'trivial history' [at least in the field of paleontology], but become a 'case', have been reported by 9-13).

Following this 'rediscovery', the existence of the femur was initially denied by MPFT scientists (eg: "The absence of limb bones does not permit us to tell whether Toumaï was a biped" [14]), and was then ignored in successive publications [eg, 15-17]. In contrast, the potential of this specimen for contributing to the debate on the definition of “hominine” and on the origin of bipedalism did not go unnoticed [9,11-13,18]. Eight years after the discovery of the skull of the oldest known hominid, an unpublished photo indicates that a femur of the same species was found at the same time. Why was it not published? 'Asked a journalist from La Recherche seven years ago; [9]; 'If postcranial remains had been found close to the skull, possibly belonging to it, wouldn't they be an important test of the specimen's hominid status? And a femur wasn't that precisely what had been called for to settle the question of whether or not Toumaï was bipedal and therefore the earliest known hominid-oldest man?', a sentiment that was echoed two years later by J. Reader in his famous book on the history of palaeoanthropological research [13].

Finally, even though belatedly, at least the admission of the existence of the femur of Toumai was broadcast via radio in 2016 [19] ".

[5] Beauvilain A, Watté J-P, 2009. Was Toumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) buried? Bull. Soc Géol. Normandie Amis Muséum Havre 96.
[6] Beauvilain A, Watté J-P, 2009. Was Toumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) buried? Anthropologie. 47.
[7] Brunet M et al., 2002. A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa. Nature 418.
[8] Franco-Chadian Paleoanthropological Mission.
[9] Constans N, 2009. The femur of Toumaï. La Recherche, July 2009.
[10] Hawks J, 2009.Sahelanthropus :did camelherders bury Toumaï facing Mecca? John Hawks Weblog May 2009.
[11] Hawks J, 2009. Sahelanthropus: "The femur of Toumaï?" John Hawks Weblog July 2009.
[12] Pickford M, 2010. Marketing Palaeoanthropology: The Rise of Yellow Science. In San Martin J-P et al., Eds. : “Paleontological Heritage. Treasures from the Depths of Time”. National Institute of Marine Geology and Geology.
[13] Reader J, 2011. Missing Links. In search of Human Origins. Oxford University Press.
[14] Brunet M et al., 2004. "Toumaï", upper Miocene of Chad, the new doyen of the human branch. C.R. Palevol 3.
[15] Brunet M et al., 2005. New material of the earliest hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad. Nature 434.
[16] Guy F et al., 2005. Morphological affinities of the Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Late Miocene hominid from Chad) cranium. PNAS 102.
[17] Zollikofer CPE et al., 2005. Virtual cranial reconstruction of Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Nature 434.
[18] Wikipedia, 2016. Toumaï.

[19] France Culture, 2016. The humanity of origins. The Black Salon. Interview of Mr. Brunet by V. Charpentier (April 16, 2016).

France culture 2

In effect, on France Culture, Michel Brunet announced the existence of this femur during Vincent Charpentier's 'Le Salon noir' on April 16th, 2016 from 7:30 pm to 8 pm (at 21 minutes 49 seconds from the beginning of the show): “Toumaï is a biped according to the base of his skull, as well as according to his brain, but this is not published yet, but also on the basis of his femur which is not yet published either, but it's clearly a biped ... “

femur en place avec traces

The left femur of Sahelanthropus tchadensis at the moment of its discovery on July 19, 2001 (photograph Alain Beauvilain).

The fossil not only has an encrustation of white cement but also locally a ferruginized greyish encrustation. It is the largest and best preserved fossil found in the 'tomb' of Toumaï, with the exception of the skull itself.Traces of gnawing (series of parallel streaks possibly due to a Hystrix- porcupine) are clearly visible on this fossil (two red arrows show the evidence).

How did we get to this situation where an important fossil is put aside?
Worse, he could have vanishe

Until at least the beginning of 2004, TM266-01-063 remained 'indet' (= unidentified) in the fossil management database. This data base is continuously updated with the anatomical determination of the fossils taken in hand and studied by the specialists of the different groups. Successive publications of the research undertaken give a good idea of the important advance of knowledge, from the smallest fossils, rodents, to the largest, anthracotheres, hippopotami, elephants and giraffids among others.

For the 2003-2004 academic year, a student at the University of Poitiers, Aude Bergeret, was accepted for a second year master's degree. Her thesis would focus on taphonomy (taphos - burial, nomos - law, rule, = understanding of the processes of burial, fossilization and erosion) of the fossils of the Toros-Menalla (TM) area which were made available to her in the office of Patrick Vignaud where the fossils of the Franco-Chadian Palaeoanthropological Expedition (MPFT) from TM were kept.

Taphonomic studies can lead to the destruction of fossils. Of course in such extreme cases only unimportant fossils are used which researchers have understood are unidentified because they are unidentifiable. The photograph above shows two specimens next to TM266-01-63. These are just simple cylinders without ends. This type of fossil yields nothing of interest about anatomy or taxonomy and can be sacrificed for geochemical studies. More complete specimens obviously need to be preserved. This should be the case with the TM266-01-63 fossil, which had previously been examined by a carnivore specialist who recognized it as an almost complete femur shaft of a mammal weighing about 40 kg but not that of a carnivore.

At the beginning of 2004, before leaving for Chad, where the field scenes about the discovery of Toumaï were to be filmed, Michel Brunet and Patrick Vignaud expressly authorized Aude Bergeret to cut the fossil TM266-01-63 in half in order to conduct research on its internal structure, the mineralogy of clays and to make studies of isotopic chemistry which, for example, could yield information, about how long the fossil had remained in a marshy or silty environment.

The head of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Poitiers was, at the time, a palaeoanthropologist, who conducts innovative research with a strong methodological component (X-ray micro-tomography) in order to study fossil humanity, and a specialist in palaeoecology, Professor Roberto Macchiarelli. He was recruited in 2001 to study any post-cranial fossils that the MPFT might discover. He worked on Toumaï, which is why he is acknowledged in the Nature article announcing Sahelanthropus tchadensis. As a teacher-researcher, he had taught Aude Bergeret for several years.

In February 2004, Aude Bergeret was preparing to cut in half and at least partly destroy the diaphysis of a mammalian long bone, labelled “femur indeterminate at the generic and specific level” by an experienced researcher, a fossil that is part of the local diversity of the fossiliferous zone of Toros-Menalla, which, to her knowledge, must have been found near a hominid skull since its inventory number is extremely close to that of the skull numbered TM266-01-60.

However, unexpectedly meeting her former teacher and head of department, she invited him to come into Patrick Vignaud’s office where she worked to see the fossils on which she was preparing to carry out more invasive and potentially destructive investigations. Professor Roberto Macchiarelli has no reason not to accept such an innocuous proposal. Then, even before knowing where the fossil TM266-01-63 came from, the Professor, who had worked on hundreds of hominoid femora, immediately recognized the specimen as a hominoid fossil and noticed that it was different from that of Orrorin. He was then surprised to learn that this fossil was found at the same site as Toumaï because he couldn’t imagine how, after more than 30 months, such a long bone diaphysis found near the skull of Toumaï could still not be properly identified.

The failure for this bone to be correctly identified by the researchers who were in charge, ought to have posed questions among the colleagues specializing in different mammals, themselves having first studied the bovids or the crocodiles. Ignorance is legitimate, it's a fact. To work on hominids, you have to find some. There is a beginning to everything, so it is necessary to have the modesty to ask the community of hominid researchers about an identifiable fossil found so close to a hominid skull. The story of this femur is related to two divergent approaches: I do not know, I destroy; I do not know, I consult. In this case, the consultation was done by chance.

In fact, this 25 cm long diaphysis should have been exported from Chad in August 2001 as requested by its discoverers on the simple basis that a fossil of an unknown species never observed among thousands of fossils uncovered from the beginning of the project in 1994 and because it was found so close to a hominid skull it had to be properly identified as a matter of urgency.

Its discoverers were therefore surprised to learn that 30 months after its discovery this fossil was still not identified and that authorization had been given after a final examination to proceed to its destruction, at least partial, even though it was cataloged in the collections of the Republic of Chad as part of the country’s National Heritage. This 'invasive' analysis was to be done by a student during the absence of the scientific project managers ...

This mishap, had it happened, would have echoed that of the non-conservation of sediments which covered parts of the skull of Toumaï, reported by Hervé Morin in Le Monde on September 5, 2008. These sediments could have removed doubts about the absolute dating of the skull by the beryllium 10 method. ..

TM266 femurs for site en

Seventeen years after it was discovered, thirteen years after its rediscovery, nine years after photographs of it were first published, nearly two years after its acceptance by researchers who keep it, the analysis of this femur is still not published.
Why not?
The research community is waiting for a scientific treatment of the remains found near Toumaï to enlighten aspects of the debate about the origin of man and great apes so that Sahelanthropus tchadensis can finally find an undisputed place in the history of Hominidae

2018 01 24 Nature

2018 01 26 Le Figaro p. 14 Toumai?

2018 01 30 Le Monde L'histoire trouble...