Part 2.2 expresses an opinion. This must be confronted with the verification of the facts.
2.2. Context of the discoveries
The Mission Paléontologique Franco-Tchadienne (MPFT, directed by Michel Brunet) has conducted field surveys in the Djurab desert since 1994. Its first major discovery was a partial mandible attributed to a new species, Australopithecus bahrelghazali 1,2, found in the fossiliferous sector of Koro Toro (upper Pliocene). In 1997, Brunet led an exploratory team to the western part of the Djurab and discovered a new fossiliferous sector dominated by upper Miocene outcrops (Toros-Menalla, TM). From 1997 to 2001, the MPFT documented the full extension of this large area (ca. 100 km along an East-West axis) and initiated its systematic survey. In July 2001, a technical team of four MPFT members* performed a recognition survey at TM and reached a particularly rich area (locality TM 266), at that time a surface of ca. 1.5 km2, more or less clear of sand accumulations. The team collected an abundant sample of fossil specimens and photographically documented the work, but did not perform precise recording of specimen positions relative to each other within the locality. The partial cranium TM 266-01-060-1 selected as the holotype specimen of Sahelanthropus tchadensis by 3, the femur TM 266-01-063 and one of the ulnae (TM 266-01-050) were among the collected specimens. The participants in this survey reported conflicting information regarding the precise locations within the locality TM 266 of the various fossil remains collected during this mission. Pictures used to discuss the original position of the femur and cranium4 do not include the ulna TM 266-01-050, and do not present contextual elements allowing the identification of the location and timing of the photographs. Most specimens observed on these pictures comprising various craniodental and postcranial remains of other vertebrates, do not display the dust and sand coverage usually observed on surface finds in the Djurab desert: they were therefore photographed after handling. This corroborates claims by Chadian team members that these pictures did not record the initial position of the fossils and that they were photographed after the fossils were gathered from the surroundings. Given the minimum number of hominin individuals calculated for TM 266 (six, among which there are three adults 5), suggestions that TM 266-01-060-1 and any of the newly described postcranial elements belong to the same individual remain highly hypothetical.
In Ndjamena, the team roughly sorted the 561 specimens collected during the mission (141 for TM 266) at high-level taxonomic ranks and eventually stored most of the postcranial specimens as an “indet.” group. This was the case for the femur TM 266-01-063 and the ulna TM 266-01-050. The material then waited for examination by skilled anatomists, which did not happen during the following two years. At the time, the MPFT gave the highest priority to other tasks. First, the study of the craniodental material and the initial characterization of the TM 266 faunal assemblage occupied all the research time and resulted in their first description in Nature a year after TM 266 discovery6,7. Second, several field surveys aimed at unearthing further specimens at TM 266 and adjacent areas in the contexts of rapidly increasing burial of the hominin locality by aeolian sands and of extreme sand-blasting of exposed specimens. From 2001 to 2003, despite the low density of fossil remains in the Djurab fossil-bearing localities, the MPFT collected more than 7,000 specimens at TM, including new craniodental specimens attributed to Sahelanthropus and described by 5.
In early 2004, prior to careful examination by skilled paleontologists, various postcranial remains (including TM 266-01-063) discovered in July 2001 were selected for the training of a masters student in taphonomy. Seeking an identification, the student handed this specimen to Roberto Macchiarelli8, not a member of the MPFT. Macchiarelli correctly identified the femur as that of a hominin8. In parallel, the MPFT identified the ulnar remains. Later, the existence of a hominin femur from TM 266 leaked to the public prior to its formal description, damaging the ability of the MPFT to preserve the novelty of its disclosure for a formal scientific publication. Since 2004, the MPFT attempted discovering further remains documenting the postcranial anatomy of the TM hominins, to date unsuccessfully.
* Including three Chadian technicians of the Centre National d'Appui à la Recherche (CNAR, now CNRD) led by one “cooperation assistant” from the Embassy of France to Chad.
2. Brunet, M., Beauvilain, A., Coppens, Y., Heintz, E., Moutaye, A. E. (1996). Australopithecus bahrelghazali, une nouvelle espèce d'Hominidé ancien de la région de Koro Toro (Tchad). C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris 322, 907-913 (1996).
3. Brunet, M. et al. A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa. Nature 418, 145-151 (2002).
5. Brunet, M. et al. New material of the earliest hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad. Nature 434, 752-755 (2005).
6. Brunet, M. et al. A new hominid from the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa. Nature 418, 145-151 (2002).
7. Vignaud, P. et al. Geology and palaeontology of the Upper Miocene Toros-Menalla hominid locality, Chad. Nature 418, 152-155 (2002).
Franck Guy, researcher at the CNRS, assistant director of PALEVOPRIM laboratory, thesis « Variabilité de l'appareil manducateur chez les Hominoidea (Mammalia, primates) actuels », University of Poitiers, 2002, directors Michel Brunet and Laurent Viriot.
Guillaume Daver, senior lecturer, University of Poitiers, thesis « Le complexe articulaire du poignet des Hominoïdes miocènes et plio-pléistocènes africains : approche comparative anatomo-fonctionnelle et morphométrique », Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris, 2007, directors Dominique Grimaud-Hervé and Gilles Bérillon.
Hassane Taïsso Mackaye, professor, University of N'Djamena, thesis « Les Proboscidiens du mio-pliocène du Tchad : biodiversité, biochronologie, paléoécologie et paléobiogéographie », University of Poitiers, 2001, directors Michel Brunet et Pascal Tassy.
Andossa Likius, professor, University of N’Djamena, thesis « Les grands ongulés du mio-pliocène du Tchad (Rhinocerotidae, Giraffidae, Camelidae) : systématique, implications paléobiogéographiques et paléoenvironnementales », University of Poitiers, 2002, directors Michel Brunet et Denis Geraads.
Jean Renaud Boisserie, Director of Research at the CNRS, director of PALEVOPRIM laboratory, thesis « Nouveaux Hippopotamidae du Mio-Pliocène du Tchad et de l’Ethiopie : implications phylogénétiques et paléoenvironnementales », University of Poitiers, 2002, directors Michel Brunet and Patrick Vignaud.
Abderamane Moussa, thesis « Les séries sédimentaires fluviatiles, lacustres et éoliennes du bassin du Tchad depuis le Miocène terminal », University of Strasbourg, 2010, directors Philippe Duringer and Mathieu Schuster.
Patrick Vignaud, professor, director of Geosciences Department, university of Poitiers, thesis « Les Thalattosuchia, crocodiles marins du mésozoïque : systématique phylogénétique, paléoécologie, biochronologie et implications paléogéographiques », University of Poitiers, 1995, director Michel Brunet.
Clarisse Nékoulnang Djétounako, Head of the Fossil Conservation and Valorisation Service (Centre national de développement et de la recherche (ex CNAR), N’Djaména, thesis « Les collections scientifiques et leur valorisation : une politique de recherche et un enjeu socio-culturel. L’exemple du patrimoine tchadien et d’autres collections paléontologiques africaines », University of Poitiers, 2015, directors Patrick Vignaud, Géraldine Garcia and Dominique Moncond’huy.
A) ‘From 1997 to 2001, the MPFT documented the full extension of this large area (ca. 100 km along an East-West axis) and initiated its systematic survey. In July 2001, a technical team of four MPFT members performed a recognition survey at TM’
Who did what from January 1997 to March, 2002 ?
Travel to and from the sites is included.
Guillaume Davert, Abderamane Moussa and Clarisse Nékoulnang Djétounako were included in the scientific project afterwards.
This table requires no comment – it speaks for itself.
The frequency of field surveys between 1997 and 2002 is stressed.
The locality TM 266 was discovered in July 2001 because the geographer Alain Beauvilain had established the map of all the known sites and which he constantly updated. For him, it was clear that the vast zone extending beneath the longest scarp in the entire region merited a thorough survey. Ever since November1997, this scarp had been known and site TM 39 which is 22 km from TM 266 was found. From the 6th to the 10th February 1998, Alain Beauvilain and Fanoné Gongdibé discovered sites TM 63 and TM 64 which are only 4 to 6 km from TM 266. Opposition to the continuation of the survey was declared on account of the dusty nature of the Chadian Basin. Unable to convince the palaeontologists to change their minds, Alain Beauvilain took the initiative to organise the July 2001 field survey, which as we now know, was a resounding success. From July 2001 to March 2002 more than a hundred fossil sites were recorded.
A particularity of the fossiliferous ites in the Djurab is their immense extent due to the flatness of the country. Active dunes (barchans) move across the vast gritty substrate in such a way that a site that is exposed one year may be buried deep in sand the next, and a single outcrop may be separated into two exposures by the presence of a dune on it, in which case it was registered as two separate sites – there are almost as many fossil sites as there are dunes. It is also worth mentioning that there are fossils under the dunes, which is why it is necessary to make frequent visits to the sites to explore the places that were not accessible during previous surveys. This tactic was employed with success until March 2002.
TM254, the 16 July 2001 and TM Am Zao, the 30 October 2001.
(photographs Alain Beauvilain, rights reserved).
B) In Ndjamena, the team roughly sorted the 561 specimens collected during the mission (141 for TM 266) at high-level taxonomic ranks and eventually stored most of the postcranial specimens as an “indet.” group. This was the case for the femur TM 266-01-063 and the ulna TM 266-01-050. The material then waited for examination by skilled anatomists, which did not happen during the two following years.’
The field team comprised two Chadians holding Natural Science Diplomas (Fanoné Gondibé, graduate of the University of Yaounde, Engineer and Civil Servant in the Ministry of Mines, at the time attached to the CNAR, and Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, graduate of the University of N’Djaména, in temporary employment at the CNAR), as well as a Chadian without diploma (Mahamat Adoum, working under contract at the CNAR) as well as a Frenchman holding a PhD in Geography (Alain Beauvilain).
A)Concerning the July 2001 field survey, the daily catalogue was compiled by a Chadian civil Servant employed at the CNAR, because he fossils collected are part of the Chadian patrimony. As soon as the team returned to N’Djamena, an official register was acquired and the field catalogue was entered into it. During the following field surveys, entries wer made directly into this register. These fossils were correctly described in terms of the body parts preserved, but not all were identified to genus and species, as is often the case when compiling a field catalogue. Could a geographer or a graduate in Natural Sciences attribute material to the family Hominidae, not only a complete skull (a cranium and an unpublished mandible) but also a femur and one ulna, without provoking mockery?
In sharp contrast, at the end of August 2001, professor Michel Brunet was enabled to examine the fossils brought back to N’Djamena for as long as he wished ‘as needs required’. He therefore had in his hands the ulna TM266-01-50, catalogued in the field as ‘ulna in several fragments’ but he did not feel that it warranted exportation to his laboratory in Poitiers, as revealed by its absence from exportation permit N° 8 issued on the 27th August 2001.
In even more telling contrast, professor Patrick Vignaud, co-author of this publication, has forgotten that senior lecturer Patrick Vignaud, who participated in the field survey which took place from 21st October to 4th November 2001, was the person who collected the ulna TM266-01-358. Why did he not record the co-ordinates of this fossil when he had two GPS instruments at his disposition? In addition, as the only palaeontologist in the field, he presided every day over the cataloguing of the collected fossils. He identified the fossil TM266-01-358 as an ‘ulna Mammalia indet.’. This level of identification is hardly an improvement on the methods employed in July by the unqualified geographer and his Chadian assistants. It would therefore appear that, according to this publication, neither he nor professeur Michel Brunet can be described as qualified anatomists. In other words, they were no more qualified to identify fossils than a Geographer with a PhD. However, unlike professor Michel Brunet, professor Vignaud took care to export the ulna with him, as shown by export permit n° 13 issued on the 6th November 2001.
Of the 305 fossils cataloged at TM 266 during this mission of October-November 2001, only 23 were defined at the level of their group, i.e. 7.5%, including 11 Hipparion (extinct genus of equines), and on the 124 fossils collected at TM 267, 9 were defined, i.e. 7.2%
This export permit included a large quantity of well-preserved fossils of great scientific interest, which were destined to provide raw material for young palaeontologists preparing their theses at the University of Poitiers, including two Chadians. The field surveyors who collected these magnificent fossils felt proud of their achievement because they understood the scientific value of the specimens to the students, Chadian or otherwise.
Prior to this, Director of Research at the CNRS Jean-Renaud Boisserie and Lecturer at the University of Montpellier, Fabrice Lihoreau, at the time these doctoral students completing their thesis, were present at N’Djamena from the end of September to mid-October 2001, lodged at the CNAR, where they were given all the time and facilities to handle the fossils brought back from the Djourab in July. How come they did not correct any omissions or insufficiencies made by the team that collected the fossils in July, exporting only the specimens that were relevant to their own studies, as shown by export permits 10 and 11 issued on the 10th October, 2001.
Then, at the beginning of 2004, before departing for the Chadian Sahara with the aim of reconstructing the discovery of Toumaï for a film, from which the entire team which made the find was excluded, authorisation was given to a Masters student in taphonomy to destroy TM 266-01-63, who fortunately hesitated and took this beautiful fossil to Roberto Macchiarelli who recognised it as a hominoid femur.
Did the Chadian authorities give the go-ahead for the destruction of this fossil? After all, it is part of their cultural heritage. Did other fossils undergo similar treatment?
Finally, even though it has already been evoked, it is regrettable that none of the matrix removed from the skull during cleaning, was kept, preventing Didier Bourlès, at the time assistant-director of CEREGE, from obtaining ‘a gram of undisturbed material’ (Le Monde, 5th September 2008) in order to try to date the specimen using the Berylium 10 method. As though that was not enough, during preparation of the femur, at the time considered to be of litttle interest, a centimetre of its distal extremity vanishing without trace!.
C) From July to December 2001, 52 post-cranial specimens, of which the taxonomic group could not be identified in the field, were registered in the catalogue in the hope that some of them might belong to the same species as the skull found at the same site that eventually became known as Sahelanthropus. Among these specimens, 36 were long bones (tibia, femur, humerus and ulna) among which were complete specimens as well as incomplete diaphyses.
Shortly afterwards, being very surprised that none of the long bones found close to the skull was thought to belong to the same or similar hominid Alain Beauvilain expressed his astonishment in volume 100, September/October 2004 of the South African Journal of Science, page 446 : ‘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.’
D) ‘Most specimens observed on these pictures, also including various craniodental and postcranial remains of other vertebrates, do not display the dust and sand coverage usually observed on surface finds in the Djurab desert: they were therefore photographed after handling.’
If the fossils had been covered by dust and sand as hypothesised above, then no-one would have seen them. This is why one of the co-authors of the paper, who participated in two field surveys (in 1999 to the east of the Bahr el Ghazal in the Kollé fossiliferous sector) attempted to uncover fossils using two leaf-blowers acquired by the University of Poitiers. Ear muffs on, after a while he could only conclude that the exercise was worthless, and also dangerous for the fossils.
In effect, the fossils, which are usually dark brown to black are easily visible against the pale sandy or intensely white grits on which they lie, and they can be spotted from afar. It was for this reason that the Poitou-Charente region invested in an ultra-light flying machine constructed in the region, plus a special tent to protect it, plus the salaries of two professional pilots. The failure of the pilots of this ultra-light plane to find any fossils was due to the fact that in this extremely windy environment the speed at which it flew rendered it worthless for the stated objective. It is true that, in this sector of the Djurab, « one does not collect fossils like seashells on the beach (Michel Brunet, Le Monde, 11th July 2002) but more like mushrooms.
Three photographs of the ULM : in March 1997, in KL wings folded ; in February 1998, in KL, in his tent ; March 1999-December 2002..., in storage at N'Djaména airport (photographs Alain Beauvilain, rights reserved).
E) ‘The team … documented photographically the work, but did not perform precise recording of specimen positions relative to each other within the locality.’
The photographs do not record the positions of fossils relative to each other? Photographs are not drawings !
Due to the lack of reaction about the long bones from TM 266, and because the dating techniques employed were based on excavated faunal remains, unlike the surface collections that he and his team had made at the Toumaï site, in 2009, Alain Beauvilain published a paper with Jean-Pierre Watté, Doctor of Archaeology, in the review Anthropologie. This article recounted the precise conditions and time at which the fossils were collected. Shortly afterwards, speaking from the laboratory of Palaeontology at the University of Poitiers in the presence of professor Michel Brunet, one of the Chadian participants explained to a journalist that the fossils were found at a different time, thereby altering details of the event. If such were the case, then the mise-en-scène would represent a scandalous manipulation and an extremely low level of scientific integrity. However, such is not the case and those who owe their professional ascent - professors at the university, research directors - to the work of four men in the heart of the Chadian Sahara over five years are not worthy of recognition for expressing themselves like that.
In January 2016, during an interview at the new National Museum of Chad, this participant, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye returned to the real timing of events concerning the discovery. Apart from all that, the long shadow in the photos reveals that the fossils were found early in the morning, at a time in the year when the mid-day sun is overhead, and the video camera likewise recorded the date, hour and minute at which the images were taken, the sandy surface showing every foot and hand print, all of which attest to the rigour of the work undertaken in the field.
Apart from that, and for the first time since the beginning of the project, the discovery locus of most of the main fossils at a site were recorded by GPS with the simple aim of being able to relocate the precise place during subsequent visits, because of worries about the movement of sands, but which did not occur, at least until March 2002, the last time that Alain Beauvilain went to TM 266. Recording the GPS position of every fossil would have been a waste of time because, at that time, even without moving, the GPS was accurate only to within a dozen metres. The extent of the scene of a reburial(?) which was photographed with care, is far less than the margin of error of the GPS. The GPS co-ordinates taken during the July 2001 field survey, which had not been erased, were consulted during Alain Beauvilain’s leave with the sole aim of noting the position of the skull, without anyone asking about the quantity and reason behind the nearby co-ordinates that had been recorded.
In conclusion, we can only regret that for the past 18 years, no new hominid fossils from the Toros-Ménalla sector the Chadian Sahara have seen the light of day. It is difficult to accept that only the team led by the geographer Alain Beauvilain was capable of finding them, as is the fact that it was the same geographer who led the teams to all the Chadian sites at which remains of hominids had previously been found, of which certain specimens are still awaiting publication. The fossiliferous zone is immense – it requires well-planned surveys to yield its secrets.
First described as an attendant, then as a logistician, and finally as a «co-operation assistant at the French Embassy in Chad », Alain Beauvilain was in 2001, in the heart of the Chadian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, serving in the National Centre for the Support of Science (Centre national d’appui à la recherche - CNAR), co-ordinator of palaeontological activities in the Republic of Chad. Herbert Thomas, honorary assistant director in the Palaeoanthropology and Prehistory Laboratory at the Collège de France, consecrated the last pages of his book 'D'où vient l'homme ? Le défi de nos origines' (Where did man originate ? – The challenge of our origins : Acropole, 2005) to the discovery of Toumaï and noted justly that « at the beginning of July 2001, Alain Beauvilain and his team made the essential breakthrough, without which, without a shadow of doubt, none of the rest would have happened »'