Father of Us All?

In life, the creature probably resembled a chimpanzee more than anything else. It moved through a lakeside landscape of grasslands and forest searching for food, accompanied by small bands of its fellows, most likely, and keeping a sharp eye out for pythons, crocodiles, and saber-toothed cats. This animal probably shared the forest with apes and monkeys, and like them, spent some time up in the trees. It may have walked upright, which apes rarely do for very long at a stretch. But at a casual glance, it would have seemed to our eyes like just another chimp.

In death, however, this creature has just sent shock waves through the world of science. After eight grueling years of hunting in the hot, wind-scoured desert of central Africa, an international team of researchers has uncovered one of the most sensational fossil finds in living memory: the well-preserved skull of a chimp-size animal, probably a male, that doesn't fit any known species. According to paleontologist Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers in France, whose team reported the find in Nature last week, there is no way it could have been an ape of any kind. It was almost certainly a hominid--a member of a subdivision of the primate family whose only living representative is modern man. And it has left scientists gasping with astonishment for several reasons.

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