Controversial femur could belong to ancient human relative

Jan 22, 2018

By Ewen Callaway

When anthropologists meet in France at the end of January, one of the most provocative fossils in the study of human evolution will not feature on the agenda. The approximately 7-million-year-old femur1 was examined more than a decade ago by scientists in the French city of Poitiers, but has yet to be thoroughly described in a published scientific paper.

The fossil may belong to the earliest known hominin, the group that includes humans and their extinct relatives. Few people have had access to it, but two scientists who analysed the bone briefly in 2004 have prepared a preliminary description of it. They had hoped to present their analysis at the meeting, which is organized by the Anthropological Society of Paris and is taking place in Poitiers. But the proposal by Roberto Macchiarelli, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Poitiers and France’s National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and Aude Bergeret, director of the Museum of Natural History Victor-Brun in Montauban, France, was rejected by the conference organizers.

“This specimen is really important. It’s critical,” says Macchiarelli, who has shared his unpublished report with Nature’s news team. The femur probably belongs to a species called Sahelanthropus tchadensis, he says. The bone is important because it could settle whether the species is the earliest hominin yet found, as its discoverers have claimed after analysing the skull2. “This is a fantastic occasion to finally tell people what we have, and what we know about this specimen.”

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