Michel Brunet (born on April 6, 1940) is a French paleontologist and a professor at the Collège de France. In 2001 Brunet announced the discovery in Central Africa of the skull and jaw remains of a late Miocene hominid nicknamed Toumaï. These remains are believed to predate the earliest previously known hominid remains, Lucy, by over three million years.
Brunet was born in 1940 in Vienne, in the region of Poitou. After having passed his first years in the countryside, at 8 he moved with his family to Versailles. He took a Ph.D. in paleontology at the Sorbonne and then became Professor of Vertebrate paleontology at the University of Poitiers, specializing in hoofed mammals.
A turning point in Brunet's career was when he heard that paleoanthropologist David Pilbeam was searching for fossil apes in Pakistan and the ancestors of the hominids. This spurred Brunet to form with his colleague Emile Heintz a team with the idea of also searching for extinct apes across the border from Pakistan in Afghanistan. The expedition was unsuccessful, and no fossil apes were found.
In the 1980s Brunet and Pilbeam matched together and moved to Africa. Their idea was to verify the theory of Yves Coppens that hominids had first rose in the savannas of Eastern Africa. The two paleontologists idea was that the shores of Lake Chad were particularly indicated to work as a magnet for mammals, and maybe also hominids. In 1984 searching begun in Cameroon, but the nine field seasons spent there were discouraging, with no hominids found.
A new opportunity presented itself to Brunet when the government of Chad gave him the permission to conduct researches in the Djurab Desert, that due the Chadian Civil War had long been closed to foreigners. Brunet promptly formed the French-Chadian Paleoanthropological Mission (Mission Paléoanthropologique Franco-Tchadienne or MPFT) a Franco-Chadian scientific alliance that united the University of Poitiers, the University of N'Djamena and the Centre Nationale d'Appui à la Recherche (CNAR).
The area proved itself to be a site rich in fossils, and expeditions headed by Brunet have collected over 8000 of them, including hominid remains. On January 23, 1995 he spotted a jawbone 3.5 million years old, that he classified as a new species of Australopithecine, the Australopithecus bahrelghazali. Informally he called it Abel, as a tribute to his dead friend Abel Brillanceau. Abel was the first fossil hominid found in Western Africa, radically transforming the discussions on early hominid distribution, that until this discovery was thought to center only in Southern and especially Eastern Africa.
While much discussed, a yet more important find was to be made by Brunet's team on July 19, 2001; a Chadian student of the mission, Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, unearthed a nearly complete cranium, from 6 to 7 million years old, nicknamed Toumaï by the Chadian President Idriss Déby, and classified by Brunet as the first exemplary of the Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Brunet and others, like Tim White, are strongly convinced Toumai to be a hominid, though this is contested by colleagues like Milford Wolpoff, who instead believe it to be an ape. Other experts, like Chris Stringer, argued it was inconclusive where the Sahelanthropus belongs in the human evolutionary line. Brunet has argued that further excavations have uncovered additional remains which further confirm that Sahelanthropus was a hominid, though his conclusions with these newer findings are also debated by some scientists.
The discovery brought Brunet worldwide recognition in the field of paleoanthropology; and in 2003 he was awarded the Dan David Prize, a prize given to those whose achievements help better understand the world, or affect it.