This discovery is just “the tip of [the] iceberg—one that could sink our current ideas about human evolution.”1 Science writer John Whitfield typifies the reaction of paleontologists as they learned about an astounding fossil discovery recently reported in Nature.2
An international team of paleontologists led by French scientist Michel Brunet recovered and characterized a remarkably complete hominid skull, with partial jawbone and teeth, from the Sahel region of Chad. The find dates about 7 million years in age.3 The team assigned these specimens to a new genus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and nicknamed it Toumai, which means “hope of life” in the local language.
Ironically, Toumai man’s discovery sinks the “hope of life” in evolutionary explanations for man’s origin. Instead of providing fresh support, Toumai man contradicts several key predictions that stem from the human evolutionary paradigm: (1) evolution from a shared ancestor 5 to 6 million years ago, (2) emergence of two evolutionary branches (apes and hominids) from a single species, and (3) bipedalism as the gradual result from an evolutionary driving force.
Human evolution is thought to have occurred only in eastern and southern Africa. Based on genetic differences and similarities, evolutionary biologists place the divergence time of the great apes and hominids from a shared ancestor at about 5 to 6 million years ago.4 Toumai man, at 7 million years, appears in the fossil record at least 1 million years prior to the predicted date. And yet Toumai man’s anatomy appears as advanced as hominids such as Homo habilus, dated at 2 million years old. The australopithecines, such as “Lucy,” (3.3 million years old) possess features more primitive than Toumai man’s—meaning that this group of hominids, long regarded as the transitional intermediates in humanity’s ancestry, now seem to represent an evolutionary side-branch and dead end.
Toumai man did not live alone. The Toumai fossil is only the tip of the iceberg that represents many more likely to be found in central Africa. In addition, paleontologists have recovered hominid remains dated at 5.8 million (Ardipithecus ramidus) and 6 million years (Orrorin tugenesis) from eastern and southern Africa. Instead of a single species that gave birth to two evolutionary branches (the apes and hominids), they believe a plethora of hominids existed 6 to 7 million years ago. Thus, the hominid fossil record is not a family “tree” but a “lawn.” One paleontologist likens the structure of the hominid fossil record to the Cambrian Explosion.5 In other words, when hominids first occur in the fossil record, they make an explosive, not a gradual, appearance.
Skull features indicate that Toumai man possessed the ability to walk upright, as did Orrorin tugenesis and Ardipithecus ramidus. This ability, considered a defining trait for humanity, appeared suddenly and coincidentally with the hominids’ first appearance. Toumai man lived in an ecological gallery that included woodlands, open savannas, and a lake front.6 But, the evolutionary model maintains that bipedalism arose gradually when hominids were forced from a forest environment into an open savanna.7 Thus, bipedalism apparently emerged in the absence of an evolutionary driving force.
Each fossil discovery reveals more of the iceberg that capsizes the case for human evolution. Toumai man’s discovery renders much of what appears in textbooks incorrect. At the same time, the explosive diversity and sudden emergence of bipedalism that occurs with hominids’ first appearance in the fossil record serve as hallmarks of God’s creative work.8
- John Whitfield, “Oldest Member of Human Family Found,” Nature Science Update, https://www.nature.com/nsu/020708/020708-12.html
- Bernard Wood, “Hominid Revelations from Chad,” Nature 418 (2002): 133-35; Ann Gibbons, “First Member of Human Family Uncovered,” Science 297 (2002): 171-72.
- Michel Brunet et al., “A New Hominid From the Upper Miocene of Chad, Central Africa,” Nature 418 (2002): 145-51.
- Roger Lewin, Principles of Human Evolution (Malden, MA: Blackwell Science, 1998), 192.
- Wood, 133-35.
- Patrick Vignaud et al., “Geology and Paleontology of the Upper Miocene Toros-Menalla Hominid Locality, Chad,” Nature 418 (2002): 152-55.
- Lewin, 219-29.
- Fazale R. Rana, “The Leap to Two Feet: The Sudden Appearance of Bipedalism,” Facts for Faith 7(Q4 2001), 33-41.