The Toumaï Skull: Ape or Human Ancestor?

by Marvin Lubenow on August 30, 2006

In 2001, a chimp-sized cranium (lacking the lower jaw) was discovered in the Djurab Desert in the central African nation of Chad by a team led by Michael Brunet (University of Poitiers, France). Dating by radiometric means was impossible, but the vertebrate fossils found in association with the skull compared to East African dates of between six and seven million years BP (before the present). Brunet believed that he had found the oldest hominid (i.e., an evolutionary ancestor to modern humans).

The press hailed it as the true “missing link.” It was featured on the front cover of Nature, perhaps the most respected science journal in the world, on July 11, 2002. Its scientific name is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and it has been nicknamed “Toumaï” (“hope of life”).

From the very beginning, the cranium has been the center of controversy among evolutionists. To begin with, from the back the skull looks like a chimpanzee. From the front it looks like an australopithecine. Bernard Wood put it this way: “Quite simply, a hominid of this age should only just begin to show signs of being a hominid. It certainly should not have the face of a hominid less than one-third of its geological age” (Nature, July 11, 2002, p. 134).

Second, if “Toumaï” is a hominid, it would disqualify many famous fossils that are not nearly as old and whose discoverers have claimed their human ancestry.

Furthermore, if “Toumaï” is a hominid, the inferred age of “Toumaï” would place the beginning of the human evolutionary line much earlier than molecular studies have allegedly indicated. In other words, the molecular data do not conform to the fossil data.

Last is the question of whether or not “Toumaï” was bipedal, which is one of the major qualifications for being a hominid. There was severe postmortem distortion of the cranium (i.e., after the death of the individual); it had to be reconstructed by computer. The position and shape of the foramen magnum (the hole at the base of the skull through which the spinal cord goes) differs in bipedal beings (humans) versus quadrupedal animals and primates. The extreme distortion of the skull makes it difficult to determine the shape and location of the foramen magnum with certainty.

On October 10, 2002, an international team headed by Milford Wolpoff (University of Michigan) wrote a letter to Nature challenging the fact that “Toumaï” was a hominid. They claimed that the features in the teeth, face and skull used by Burnet in calling “Toumaï” a hominid are not unique to hominids but can be found in apes as well. They suggested that “Toumaï” might be an ancestral female gorilla (Ann Gibbons, The First Human, Doubleday, 2006, p. 218). The controversy continues to this day.

Since evolutionists believe that humans evolved from an ape-like stock, it is not surprising that they should consider ape-like fossils as possible human ancestors.
That controversies like this arise is not surprising. Since evolutionists believe that humans evolved from an ape-like stock, it is not surprising that they should consider ape-like fossils as possible human ancestors. Evolutionists claim: “During the Miocene epoch [from 5.5 to 22 million years ago] as many as 100 species of apes roamed throughout the Old World” (“Becoming Human,” Scientific American special, 16:2, 2006, p. 5). Yet, evolutionists claim that virtually no ape fossils have been found. Creationists suspect that many fossils of extinct ape species have been found but that they are misinterpreted as human evolutionary ancestors. The reasons for such misidentification are easily understood.

1. The definition of the term hominid is still disputed. There seems to be a consensus among evolutionists that there are at least two defining qualifications: (a) bipedal locomotion and (b) reduced canines. However, this is an improper definition. It is loaded with evolutionary presuppositions that prejudice a fossil toward possible human ancestry without proving it. The biblical distinction that true humans are made in the “image of God” is disregarded. In other words, in diagnosing fossils, the dice are loaded improperly in favor of evolution.

2. Finding a human ancestor guarantees celebrity status for the discoverer. No other type of fossil discovery delivers such rewards for the finder. To find a non-human primate ancestor is not newsworthy. Thus, there is a subconscious bias to interpret any primate fossil as a possible human ancestor.

3. Funding for field expeditions from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society or other foundations is often based on whether or not one has found hominid fossils. Thus there is a further subconscious bias to interpret any primate fossil as a possible human ancestor in order to guarantee funding for future research.

4. A National Science Foundation director observed: “The exceedingly cut-throat level of competition in Eastern African anthropology is a long-standing problem” (Ann Gibbons, The First Human, p. 101). This unbelievable competition adds to the bias in interpreting primate fossils as possible human ancestors in an attempt to outdo others working in the field to gain fame and other rewards.

It is my belief, after study in this field for forty years, that all of the hominid fossils below the level of Homo erectus (which is fully human) are nothing but extinct primates that have been arranged in a sequence to attempt to prove that humans have evolved.

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.