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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
Chad celebrates new fossil centre
By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, Ndjamena

Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Nature
Palaeontologists hope there is more where Toumaļ came from
Chad is celebrating the opening of its first palaeontology department - only the fourth in Africa - following a discovery which shook up the understanding of human origins.

Until a few years ago, most people thought that the human line emerged in East Africa's Rift Valley.

Scientists like Dr Louis Leakey helped make the region famous, and called the area the "cradle of mankind".

But in July 2002, a fossil was found in Chad which challenged this view.

The discovery of a seven-million-year-old skull, nick-named Toumaļ, suggested that the cradle was actually further west, in the heart of Central Africa.

'Great day'

The man who found Toumaļ, French palaeontologist Professor Michel Brunet, on Tuesday helped open Chad's first palaeontology department.

He hopes it will train young Chadians to follow in his footsteps.

"For me today is a great day because now you have the first palaeontology department at the University of Ndjamena - it's just the beginning of something.

Toumaļ is seven million years old, so our ambition is to find something older
Dr Mackaye Hassane Taisso, head of palaeontology
"Before Toumaļ, we thought that the cradle of mankind was somewhere in East Africa so now we know that it's wrong, it's not the truth."

The new palaeontology department will have space for 46 students, as well as a hi-tech laboratory to analyse fossils.

The head of the new unit, Dr Mackaye Hassane Taisso, set out his ambitions for the future.

"Listen, Toumaļ is seven million years old, so our ambition is to find something older," he told the BBC.

"If we find a fossil about 10 million years old, that would be great. We are placing the bar very high, but we need to."

Although it was Professor Brunet who led the team that found Toumaļ, the skull itself was actually unearthed by a Chadian researcher, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye.

"I first saw it three metres away," he recalls.

The reconstruction corrects distortions in Toumaļ's fossilised skull

"Something was glistening in the sun - it was some teeth. My first thought was that it was a type of small pig.

"I looked at it all over - it was covered with sediment. It was only when I turned it over and I saw these two holes - the orbits for the eyes - that I realised it wasn't a pig, it was a real discovery."

Mr Djimdoumalbaye has a reputation for being a brilliant fossil finder.

Asked if he thinks he can find an even older fossil, he is bullish.

"Why not? The next thing however to find is a complete skeleton, because at the moment we've only got the skull. If we find a complete skeleton, that's our dream now. The conditions are there, so there's no reason not to find it."

The discovery of Toumaļ turned the scientific community upside down, and researchers are now focussing on Chad's rich fossil reserves.

With the opening of its very own palaeontology department, there is now every chance of yet more amazing discoveries in this, new, cradle of mankind.

Chad skull 'leans to human line'
06 Apr 05 |  Science/Nature
Scientists unearth early skeleton
07 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Scientists clash over skull
09 Oct 02 |  Science/Nature
Skull find sparks controversy
12 Jul 02 |  Science/Nature
'Astonishing' skull unearthed in Africa
10 Jul 02 |  Science/Nature
Q&A: Chad fossil discovery
10 Jul 02 |  Science/Nature
Scientists delight in ancient skull find
10 Jul 02 |  Science/Nature

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