14 October 2002
Towards the middle of 2002, we responded on this site to sensational newspaper claims about the ‘Toumai’ skull, Sahelanthropus tchadensis (see New ‘Ape-Man’ Preliminary Response).
Nature magazine’s Dr Henry Gee said, ‘It came out of the ground entire, normally one finds bits and pieces’ (actually, it was still fragmentary and incomplete, but certainly a lot less so than most of these ‘ape-man’ skulls).
Famous British ‘human evolution’ expert Dr Chris Stringer said it ‘shows rather human features, and that is very surprising at six million years’. At the time, it was labeled in the media as ‘the most significant find in living memory’, being ‘the oldest human ancestor’.
In our response, we pointed out, for instance, that a skull with a combination of chimp and australopithecine features, which was being claimed for the Toumai skull, is hardly a big deal considering the accumulated evidence displacing australopithecines from our family tree.
Then of course there is the tentative nature of interpretation of fossil finds, as well as the way in which such interpretation is influenced by the philosophy and (inevitable) bias of the interpreter. Shortly after the hype, we published a brief item, Skeptical evolutionists say latest ‘ape-man’ just a female gorilla, based on claims by Dr Brigette Senut, of the Natural History Museum in Paris, France.
Now a row over this Toumai skull has hit the pages of the prestigious journal Nature that reinforces this skepticism. Senut is joined by fellow evolutionary paleoanthropologists Martin Pickford, Milford Wolpoff and others in arguing strongly that the skull is not on the human line at all (see Debate continues over ancient skull, based on Wolpoff et al., Sahelanthropus or ‘Sahelpithecus’?, Nature 419(6907):581–582, 10 October 2002).
They say it is from an early gorilla or chimp, or a similar now-extinct species. Its short face and small canine teeth, rather than being evidence of ‘humanness’, are likely to be because it is female, a phenomenon called ‘sexual dimorphism’. Amazingly, considering the strong claims made at the time of the initial ‘hype’, Wolpoff says, ‘I don’t see how you can tell what it is, but it is not human’. He points out that the muscle attachment ‘scarring’ on the skull shows ‘quite clearly’ that the creature did not walk upright as humans do—‘it is not human’ he says.
In the competitive field of what one could almost call ‘human ancestor worship’, there are huge rewards in terms of fame and fortune for finding a definitive ancestor candidate. So, not surprisingly, the discoverer of the Toumai skull, Michel Brunet, hits back strongly in the same issue (p. 582). Senut and Pickford also have an axe to grind; they were the discoverers of another batch of bone fragments which they say were from the same period and which they called Orrorin tugenensis (aka the ‘Millennium Man’). If Toumai occupies the ancestral spotlight, Orry can’t.
In the slanging match, one thing seems clear; the truth of the assertion one researcher made, ‘Fossils are fickle. Bones will sing any song you want to hear’ (J. Shreeve, Argument over a woman, Discover 11(8):58, 1990).
Stringer now seems to be moving to a position of greater caution; he points out that we don’t have any fossils of chimp or gorilla ancestors, and it is ‘too early’ to say where either of the above specimens lie in relation to the human line. Mark Collard, from University College London, said that there was no reason to accept either team’s conclusion, and that one could not say for certain whether it was an ape or a human ancestor.
We challenge all the media organs that ‘hyped’ the Toumai skull to fairly present this challenge to the skull’s claimed human ancestry (from within the evolutionary camp itself) and give it the same publicity as the original. Sadly, this is unlikely to occur. Over and over, one sees the spectacle of the popular media promoting the ‘find of all finds’, the definitive ‘ancestor’ that will prove human evolution at last to all doubters. Once the brainwashing has sunk in to millions, behind the scenes other evolutionists almost invariably ‘demote’ the particular specimen off the human line. But how often do we see these retractions get the same, if any, ‘splash’ as the original discovery? (Compare the Mars Life hype and the National Geographic with the Archaeoraptor hoax.)