The earliest upright ape

Two decades ago the world of palaeoanthropologists was in turmoil with the publication of an account of a new find in Chad (see: Bonanza time for Bonzo; July 2002). A fossil cranium, dubbed Sahelanthropus tchadensis (nicknamed Toumaï­ or ‘hope of life’ in the Goran language), appeared like a cross between a chimpanzee and an australopithecine. The turmoil erupted partly because of its age: Upper Miocene, around 7 Ma old. Such an antiquity was difficult to reconcile with the then accepted ~5 Ma estimate for the evolutionary split between humans and chimpanzees, based on applying a ‘molecular clock’ approach to the difference between their mtDNA. The other point of contention was the size of Sahelanthropus’s canine teeth: far too large for australopithecines and humans, but more appropriate for a gorilla or chimp.

Cast of the reconstructed skull of Sahelanthropus tchadensis. (Credit: Didier Descouens, University of Toulouse)

In the absence of pelvic- and foot bones, or signs of the foramen magnum where the spinal cord enters the skull – crucial in distinguishing habitual bipedalism or being an obligate quadruped – encouraged the finders of a 6.1 to 5.7 Ma-old Kenyan hominin Orrorin tugenensis to insist that its skeletal remains – several teeth, fragments of a lower jaw, a thigh bone, an upper arm and of a finger and thumb but no cranial bones – were of ‘the earliest human ancestor’. In Orrorin’s favour were smaller canine teeth than those of later australopithecines. At the time of the dispute, centred mainly on absence of crucial evidence, doyen of hominin fossils Bernard Wood of George Washington University and an advocate of ‘untidy’ evolution, suggested that both early species may well have been evolutionary ‘dead ends’ (see: A considered view; October 2002). And there the ‘muddle’ has rested for 20 years.

In 2002 not only a cranium of Sahelanthropus had been unearthed. Three lower jaw bones and a collection of teeth suggested that as many as 5 individuals had been fossilised. A partial leg bone (femur) and three from forearms (ulna) cannot definitely be ascribed to Sahelanthropus but, in the absence of evidence of any other putative hominin species, they may well be. It has taken two decades for these remains to be analysed to a standard acceptable to peer review (Daver, G. et al. 2022. Postcranial evidence of late Miocene hominin bipedalism in Chad. Nature v. 608, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04901-z). The authors present convoluted anatomical evidence that Toumaï­’s femur, which had been gnawed by a porcupine and lacks joints at both ends, suggesting that it was indeed suited to upright walking. Yet the arm bones hint that it may have been equally comfortable in tree canopies. Yet it does look very like an ape rather than a hominin.

Much the same conclusion has been applied to Australopithecus afarensis, indeed its celebrated representative ‘Lucy’ met her end through falling out of a large tree ~3.2 Ma ago (see: Lucy: the australopithecine who fell to Earth?; September 2016). So, dual habitats may have been adopted by hominins long after they emerged. Yet Au afarensis was capable of trudging through mud as witnessed by the famous footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania. Only around 3 Ma has reasonably convincing evidence for upright walking similar to ours been discovered in Au africanus. The full package of signs from pelvis and foot for habitual bipedalism dates to 2 Ma ago in Au sediba. Even this latest known australopithecine seems to have had a gait oddly different from that of members of the genus Homo.

So, in many respects the benefits of full freeing of the hands to develop manipulation of objects, as first suggested by Freidrich Engels, may have had to await the appearance of early humans. Earlier hominins almost certainly did make tools of a kind, but the revolutionary breakthrough associated with humanity was more than 5 million years in the making.

See also: Callaway, E. 2022. Seven-million-year-old femur suggests ancient human relative walked upright. Nature (News)24 August 2022;

Handwerk, B. 2022. Seven Million Years Ago, the Oldest Known Early Human Was Already Walking. Smithsonion Magazine, 24 August 2022 (click the link ‘published today in Nature’ in 2nd paragraph to access complimentary PDF of Daver et al)