French scientists digging in Central Africa have uncovered a skull, virtually complete and almost seven million years old, that belonged to an individual about the size of a chimpanzee. It is, they say, the earliest known member of the human family, by perhaps as much as a million years.
The discovery, described in today's issue of the journal Nature, is being hailed as the most important fossil discovery in decades. Surprised by the age, complexity and geography of the fossils, paleoanthropologists spoke of the find as a critical and perhaps revolutionary turning point in the study of human origins.
The scientists said it was too early to know whether the skull represented a species on a direct ancestral line to humans. In fact, the fossils a cranium, two lower jaw fragments and several teeth suggest an evolutionary complexity and diversity in human origins that seem to defy description by the simplified family trees of the past.