Michel Brunet

Michel Brunet

Professor at the Collège de France, Chaire de Paléontologie humaine, Paris; Member of the Institut International de Paléoprimatologie et Paléontologie Humaine Évolution et Paléoenvironnements (IPHEP), Faculté des Sciences, Université de Poitiers, Fra

Where did our lives originate? As Homo sapiens, we have this question wired into our DNA. For Michel Brunet (1940), human paleontology holds the key to an answer. His big break came in Central Africa, during one of his many expeditions searching for fossils: he discovered the skull and several jaws of a late Miocene hominid, whose remains are believed to predate the earliest previously known hominid, Lucy, by more than three million years. Brunet gave it the nickname Toumaï, meaning “hope of life” in the local Goran language of Chad. What can the remains of a life lived millions of years ago tell us about how we live our lives today – and what does it mean that it originated in Africa? For his work Brunet received the Dan David Prize, given to those whose outstanding research contributes to better understanding the world. Brunet, a member of the French National Order of Merit and the French Legion of Honour, serves as professor of Human Paleontology at the Collège de France in Paris, and also as a researcher at the Institut International de Paléoprimatologie et Paléontologie humaine, Évolution et Paléoenvironnements (IPHEP), where he currently leads diggings for fossil mammals and primates in Chad, Libya, Egypt and Cameroon – what are the next “hopes of life” he will discover?

Breaking the Wall Around the Secrets of Our Origins. How Early Hominids and Their Paleoenvironments Can Explain Our Species


20 years ago we went to the wall with our geologist hammers, then the police came.

The secret of our origin: the origin is probably between seven and eight million. What is very surprising is that during a large part of our story, we don’t believe that we have a story. The first time we believe that we have a story happened when in Germany we found the first fossil hominid- Neanderthal- not far from near Düsseldorf. Now we know that Neanderthals are living in Europe, in Central Asia. We know a lot about their genome, and we know that Neanderthals are species different from our species- from sapiens. Neanderthal is a sister group, the sister species of sapiens. They became extinct very recently- ca. 27,000 years ago.

Darwin and Wallace predictions:  we are celebrating the bicentennial birthday of Darwin. So, Darwin predicted that our closest relatives are chimps, and that probably we shall find ancestor for chimps, and for us, in Africa. Vincent Sarich, Allan Wilson, University of California at Berkley, demonstrated in 1967 that with chimps we share, in term of genetic, a lot- the difference is around one percent. It means that we share a common ancestor between chimps and us.

Chimp and human are two sister groups. In terms of palaeontology, I think we have four milestones: one child, Taung Child, coming from South Africa, 2.5 million; two young ladies coming from Ethiopia: one you know, Lucy: 3.2 million, and also another one, Ardi, just published in Science a few weeks ago, 4.4 million; and a young man, Toumaï, coming from Chad; it means “west of the rift valley”. Toumaï is 7 million years old. You have here Toumaï, Ardi, and Lucy.

Toumaï is coming west of the rift. For the first time we found hominid west of the rift. Going west of the rift is just like breaking the wall.

Now with Toumaï we are writing one of the earliest chapters of our story. We are digging with Mission Paléonthropologique Franco-Tchadienne in Chad. A long time ago, we have a lot of sites, a lot of fossils. We are digging in a nice desert, but a very small place, because Lake Chad Basin is 2.5 million square kilometres. You can imagine: we are looking for teeth of one centimetre. It is quite easy. (Laughter in audience) Digging in Djurab Desert, a lot of fossil- more than you can expect! We already got mammal complete skeletons: next time I shall tell you about a complete hominid skeleton.

So, with all these fossils, we can show that at 7 million years we have in this spot of the Sahara, a mosaic landscape, something like the Okavango Delta in Botswana. We can demonstrate that Toumaï in this Mosaic landscape is living in woodland. Here is the cranium of Toumaï, 7 million years old. Of course, when you spend 7 million years in sediment, your cranium is a little bit crushed. So that it’s why we make deconstruction and reconstruction using CT scans and digitalization for each piece of bone .

You see here. Now you are looking at the earliest human face known at the moment. Toumaï was very happy with this reconstruction.

What happened? First point: before we just know early hominid in South Africa and in East Africa: australopithecine, now the early-late Miocene hominids are known between six and seven million years: one at six in Ethiopia, and another one at six in Kenya, and Toumaï in Chad at seven. With Toumaï, you break the wall of the rift, of the great African rift. Now we know that the early hominid are widespread in Africa. So, we have to look everywhere in this path. It is a big deal.

We are looking in Libya. Look, we are very lucky to work in such desert- nice place, no? But, I can tell you: it can be very hot- very, very hot! But, we have here fossils, as you can see. So, going west, it means that we have to find fossil chimp. It means that we have to look about our last common ancestor. I hope to speak to you about him the next time.

At the moment, in our world, I think that the best conclusion that I can tell you is: all of us, you and me, we share the same ancestor- all of us! We are coming from Africa- all of us- we are sister and brother, brother and sister. Thank you.