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Ancient skull more ape than human?

Toumai skull from Chad is between 6 million and 7 million years old

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(CNN) -- A University of Michigan anthropologist and colleagues are challenging a recent fossil discovery, saying the skull, hailed as the oldest human-like ever found, may not be human at all.

Writing in the British journal Nature, Milford Wolpoff claims the skull nicknamed Toumai, found in northern Chad by an international team led by French paleontologist Michel Brunet, is not part of the human family tree.

"It's an ape not a human," said Wolpoff. "Toumai did not walk on two legs. And that is what is unique about humans that we didn't find in this specimen."

After examining scars left on the fossilized bones from its neck muscles, Wolpoff and his team concluded Toumai was a quadruped -- walked on four legs not two.

Scientists say Toumai roamed Earth 6 million to 7 million years ago, about the time human ancestors split from the apes.

"[Toumai] could be a common ancestor to humans and chimps before the two branches split from each other," Wolpoff said. "We don't know if it's a gorilla and we can't say it's a human ancestor either. It's an ape."

Brunet, of the University of Poitiers in France, claims the skull is a human ancestor with a combination of features like humans and chimps. It has a flat face and protruding brow like a human but its brain and body are the size of a chimp. Brunet's team also found what they describe to be human-like canine teeth.

Wolpoff's team studied those features as well and found nothing distinctly human about any of them.

"Female apes can have small canines " said Wolpoff, "And, all humans don't have a big brow ridge."

A big brow could have developed in an ape as easily as a human, he said. The finding that Toumai did not walk on two legs is what separates it from the human tree, according to Wolpoff.

Even though it might not be a human ancestor, he said, it is still a notable discovery.

"[Toumai] would be the best-preserved of the fossil apes of this age ever found," Wolpoff said.

The Toumai discovery was first published in the journal Nature in July 2002, and many in the scientific community consider it one of the most significant finds in almost a hundred years.

Its finders consider it the oldest human-like fossil found to date. And, it's the first specimen ever found in West Africa. Many hominid fossils have been found in East Africa, but none are nearly as old as the Toumai find.

In response to Wolpoff's analysis, Brunet fired back a letter, also in Nature this week, standing by his initial characterization of Toumai as a human ancestor. Brunet said the size of Toumai's teeth and shape of its brow are characteristically human traits.

Brunet did not respond to Wolpoff's assertion that Toumai walked more like an ape, on all fours. Brunet did not respond to CNN's request for an interview.

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