7-million-year-old limb fossils may be from the earliest known hominid

Misconduct allegations over an earlier report on one of the bones hang over the findings

In 2001, researchers unearthed a partial fossil leg bone and two forearm bones in the central African nation of Chad. Those fossils come from the earliest known hominid, which lived around 7 million years ago, and reveal that the creature walked upright both on the ground and in the trees, a new study proposes.

But a lively debate surrounds the fossils, concerning whether they actually belong to the hominid species, known as Sahelanthropus tchadensis, or to an ancient ape, and to what extent either species could have adopted a two-legged gait. These have become vexing questions as scientists increasingly suspect that ape and hominid species evolved a variety of ways to walk upright, some more efficient than others, around 7 million years ago.

Since its discovery, the leg bone has also triggered competing accusations of scientific misconduct and an official investigation by the French government–funded research organization CNRS in Paris.

Previously, skull, jaw and tooth finds uncovered at the Chad site in 2001 and 2004 were classified as remnants of S. tchadensis (SN: 4/6/05). The finds are the only other fossils attributed to the species, though some researchers have also since suggested that those fossils represent an ancient ape instead.

Analyses of the three limb bones show that they belong to the previously identified Sahelanthropus species, say paleontologists Guillaume Daver and Franck Guy, both of the University of Poitiers in France, and their colleagues. And internal and external features of the leg bone indicate that Sahelanthropus walked upright, the scientists report August 24 in Nature. Shapes and structures of the two forearm bones suggest that the hominid moved on two legs through trees while grasping branches with its hands, the team says.

“The Chadian species has a set of anatomical features that clearly indicate that our oldest known [hominid] representative [walked] on the ground and in the trees,” Guy says. It’s hard to tell how efficiently or how fast Sahelanthropus moved on two legs, he adds.

Guy’s team studied 3-D digital models of the fossils derived from CT scans. The leg bone was compared with fossils of ancient apes and other hominids and with modern apes and humans. Traits including thickening of the leg bone’s tough outer layer at key points and the presence of an internal bony projection near the hip joint signal an upright stance, the scientists say.

Fossils from the African site, including the three limb bones, suggest that Sahelanthropus was the earliest known hominid, agrees paleoanthropologist Kristian Carlson of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who did not participate in the new study. But exactly how it moved while upright remains unknown, he says. Sahelanthropus exhibits a mix of upper leg and forearm traits that differs from those of living apes and humans, suggesting it adopted a novel posture and limb movements while walking.

Whatever stance Sahelanthropus assumed, it probably resembled that of two other early hominids, roughly 6-million-year-old Orrorin tugenensis and more than 5-million-year-old Ardipithecus kadabba, says paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe (SN: 9/11/04; SN: 3/3/04). Walking abilities of those hominids remain poorly understood due to limited fossils — a partial leg bone for O. tugenensis and a toe bone for the Ardipithecus species.

Haile-Selassie regards all three hominids as part of a single genus that evolved from around 7 million to 5 million years ago. On that issue, “the debate is open, even between members of our team,” Guy says.

Another debate concerns the upper leg’s internal bony projection that the researchers cite as crucial for standing upright. That trait sometimes appears in modern African apes and occasionally is absent in humans, paleoanthropologist Marine Cazenave of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and colleagues report in the June Journal of Human Evolution. The presence of this bony growth does not definitively show that Sahelanthropus walked upright, Cazenave says.

Other researchers contend that the leg bone most likely comes from an ancient ape — not a hominid — that may have occasionally walked upright. Shape measurements, including curvature of the fossil’s shaft, closely resemble those of modern chimps’ upper leg bones, University of Poitiers paleoanthropologist Roberto Macchiarelli and colleagues reported in December 2020 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

“There may have been ancient apes that had distinctive types of [upright movement] unlike any living apes, including humans,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who was a coauthor of the 2020 study.

Here is where charges of scientific misconduct come into play. The 2020 study was based on measurements of the Sahelanthropus leg fossil taken in 2004 by a University of Poitiers graduate student conducting a project on how fossilization affects bones.

That student, Aude Bergeret-Medina, was given access to fossils from the Sahelanthropus site that Daver and Guy’s team had tagged as neither hominid nor, more generally, as primate. She noted that one specimen — the leg bone — looked like it belonged to a primate, possibly an ape. Macchiarelli confirmed her observation. Plans for Bergeret-Medina to cut open the bone to study its mineral content were halted.

Macchiarelli informed his university and CNRS of the fossil’s identity. He spent the next 16 years, he says, sending repeated complaints to those institutions that the Sahelanthropus discoverers were violating codes of scientific conduct by not providing information about the leg bone in scientific papers or talks.

Then, CNRS launched an investigation of possible misconduct by Macchiarelli himself when the 2020 study appeared before the Sahelanthropus team published findings on the leg bone in its possession. No ruling has been made yet.

In supplementary information published with the new study, Guy and colleagues write that they identified the forearm bones among stored fossils after Macchiarelli brought the leg bone’s identity to their attention. Further excavations in Chad were conducted before launching a detailed study of the three limb fossils in 2017, the team says.

But the Sahelanthropus team does not cite Bergeret-Medina — now the curator of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle Jacques de La Comble in Autun, France — by name for her role in the leg bone’s identification. The investigators write that “a master’s student in taphonomy” received various fossils for a research internship in early 2004 before those finds had been carefully examined by senior scientists. The student, “seeking expertise,” gave the leg fossil to Macchiarelli who identified it as a hominid, Daver and colleagues say.

That’s incorrect, Macchiarelli contends. Bergeret-Medina initially identified the fossil as a primate’s upper leg bone followed by his confirmation of her observation. No claim was made that the fossil came from a hominid, he says. But without Bergeret-Medina’s insightful fossil observation, the new study would never have happened, Macchiarelli asserts.