The NewsFuror

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

New African ape fossil discovered

Fossil jawbone: Image courtesy of Yutaku Kunimatsu
Several details of its dentition place the ape in a class of its own
The fossil of an ape that lived 10 million years ago could hold clues to the dawn of human evolution.

The ancient ape appears to be a close relative of the last common ancestor of gorillas, chimps and humans, according to a Kenyan-Japanese team.

The lower jaw bone and 11 teeth, found in volcanic mud deposits in northern Kenya, are unveiled in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fossils from this critical time period in primate evolution are very rare.

Genetic studies suggest that the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees went along their separate pathways of evolution about five million to seven million years ago.

We have an extra piece in the puzzle of what was going in ape evolution
Prof Fred Spoor

But until now there has been very little fossil evidence unearthed in Africa from the middle-to-late Miocene Epoch (12 to 7 million years ago), when gorillas, chimps and humans shared a common ancestor.

This has led some experts to propose that apes migrated out of Africa to Europe and Asia, only returning much later.

Study leader Yutaka Kunimatsu of Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute said the latest findings contradicted the so-called "out of Europe" theory.

"Now, we have a good candidate in Africa," he said. "We do not need to think the common ancestor came back from Eurasia to Africa. I think it is more likely the common ancestor evolved from the apes in the Miocene in Africa."

Hard diet

The team plans to return to the eastern edge of the Rift valley in Kenya next year to search for more fossils.

Image courtesy of PNAS/National Academy of Sciences
Two of the fossil teeth
From the evidence available - a partial lower jaw and 11 teeth - they have pieced together clues to the ape's dentition and diet.

"The teeth were covered in thick enamel and the caps were low and voluminous, suggesting that the diet of this ape consisted of a considerable amount of hard objects, like nuts or seeds, and fruit," said Dr Kunimatsu.

"We only have some jaw fragments and some teeth... but we hope to find other body parts in our future research," he added.

Professor Fred Spoor, an anatomist at University College, London, UK, said that knowledge of great ape evolution had been hampered by a lack of fossil evidence.

"We have an extra piece in the puzzle of what was going in ape evolution," he told BBC News.

"Perhaps we might start to understand a little more about the common ancestor of African great apes and humans and whether it lived in Africa or Eurasia."

The new species has been christened Nakalipithecus nakayamai. It is the second rare fossil discovery from Africa announced in recent months.

In August, an Ethiopian-Japanese team announced the discovery in Ethiopia of 10-million-year-old teeth from a previously unknown species of great ape, Chororapithecus abyssinicus.

UN envoy sees progress on Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi with Ibrahim Gambari on 8 November 2007
Mr Gambari met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week
United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari says progress is being made in talks with Burma's military leaders.

Mr Gambari told the Security Council that while his recent visit had not achieved all its objectives, there had been "positive outcomes" from the trip.

Western diplomats, however, voiced doubt over the regime's commitment to meaningful dialogue.

Mr Gambari's assessment came ahead of a major gem auction in Rangoon - a key source of revenue for the junta.

Rights groups have called for a boycott of the two-week sale.

'Substantive dialogue'

Mr Gambari has just concluded his second visit to Burma since troops violently suppressed anti-government protests in September.

The UN envoy - who was not allowed to meet top leader General Than Shwe - described the situation as "qualitatively different from what it was a few weeks ago".

We do not believe that a fundamental shift has occurred in the regime's attitude to embrace substantive reconciliation
Zalmay Khalilzad
US envoy to the UN

"On balance, the positive outcomes of this latest mission show that the government of Myanmar (Burma)... can be responsive to the concerns of the international community," he said.

After his visit, detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to issue a statement for the first time in over four years and to meet members of her party. She also held a second meeting with a junta-appointed military liaison.

Mr Gambari said that he hoped a process was in place that would lead to "substantive dialogue with concrete outcomes " and urged the government to release Ms Suu Kyi.

Several Western diplomats, however, voiced scepticism over the commitment of Burma's leaders to a genuine dialogue process.

"We do not believe that a fundamental shift has occurred in the regime's attitude to embrace substantive reconciliation and transition to democracy," US envoy to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan, at the UN, says Security Council diplomats are divided over whether the Burmese government is genuinely committed to change or just playing for time by pretending to engage with the UN and Aung San Suu Kyi.

'Quick cash'

A worker washes jade ahead of the auction in Rangoon
Thousands of gem buyers are expected at the sale

Meanwhile in Rangoon, a major auction of precious stones is expected to attract hundreds of international dealers.

Burma is one of the world's biggest producers of jade and gems such as rubies.

But human rights groups say they are mined using forced labour and their export helps fund the junta.

"The sale of these gems gives Burma's military rulers quick cash to stay in power," said Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch in a statement.

The group called for sanctions on Burma's gem trade - but most of the buyers expected to attend are from Asian nations such as Thailand and China which oppose sanctions against Burma.

Country profile: France

Map of France

A key player on the world stage and a country at the political heart of Europe, France paid a high price in both economic and human terms during the two world wars.

The years which followed saw protracted conflicts culminating in independence for Algeria and most other French colonies in Africa as well as decolonisation in south-east Asia.


France was one of the founding fathers of European integration as the continent sought to rebuild after the devastation of World War II.

In the 1990s Franco-German cooperation was central to European economic integration. The bond between the two countries was again to the fore in the new millennium when their leaders voiced strong opposition as the US-led campaign in Iraq began.

World's highest road bridge crosses the Tarn Valley
A French icon for the 21st century: The Millau bridge in Massif Central

But France sent shockwaves through European Union capitals when its voters rejected the proposed EU constitution in a referendum in May 2005.

France's colonial past is a major contributing factor in the presence of a richly diverse multicultural population. It is home to more than five million people of Arab and African descent.

It has a number of territories overseas which, together with mainland France and Corsica, go to make up the 26 regions which the country comprises. It is further divided into 100 departements, four of which - French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion - are geographically distant from Europe.

Government in France is known for its high degree of centralisation but in March 2003 parliament approved amendments to the constitution allowing for the devolution of quite wide-ranging powers to the regions and departements.

In the light of low election turnout, the move was widely seen as a bid to re-engage in the political process French people disillusioned by the ubiquitous influence of what is often perceived as the Paris elite.

France has produced some of the continent's most influential writers and thinkers from Descartes and Pascal in the 17th century, through Rousseau and Voltaire in the 18th, Baudelaire and Flaubert in the 19th to Sartre and Camus in the 20th.

In the last two centuries it has given the art world the works of Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Braque, to name but a few.

It is also famous for its strong culinary tradition. France produces more than 250 cheeses and some of the world's best-loved wines.


  • Full name: French Republic
  • Population: 60.7 million (via UN, 2005)
  • Capital: Paris
  • Area: 543,965 sq km (210,026 sq miles)
  • Major language: French
  • Major religion: Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 76 years (men), 83 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 euro = 100 cents
  • Main exports: Machinery and transport equipment, agricultural products, including wine
  • GNI per capita: US $34,810 (World Bank, 2006)
  • Internet domain: .fr
  • International dialling code: +33


President: Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy, from the ruling, conservative UMP, won a decisive victory in the second round of the presidential election in May 2007.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy plans sweeping reforms

He gained 53% of the vote, finishing six points ahead of his Socialist rival, Segolene Royal.

The former interior minister has promised pro-market reforms to tackle sluggish economic growth and high unemployment. He aims to cut taxes and rein in powerful trades unions.

This process began with the September 2007 budget, in which French employers were offered incentives to allow workers to do overtime and tax cuts for high earners. This came just days after Prime Minister Francois Fillon said France was "bankrupt".

Change may not be easy: the previous government's attempt to give employers greater freedom to hire and fire, with the stated aim of improving job prospects for the young, sparked mass demonstrations. There were protracted protests over privatisation and pension reform plans.

On foreign policy, Mr Sarkozy has singled out France's role in Europe as a priority. He proposes a "mini treaty" to replace the EU constitution, which was rejected by French voters in 2005.

Analysts have described him as pro-American. Mr Sarkozy says good relations with the US do not mean subservience. He visited US President George W. Bush at the Bush family seaside compound in Maine in August 2007.

He promises tougher rules on immigration and in September 2007 the National Assembly passed controversial legislation tightening entry rules for immigrants' relatives.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who was 52 when he was elected, is the son of a Hungarian immigrant and a French mother of Greek Jewish origin. He grew up in Paris. Twice married, he has three children.

His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had held office since 1995.

French presidents are elected to five-year terms. A candidate can win in one round if he or she secures an absolute majority. Otherwise, the top two candidates go through to a second round.

The president, who exercises executive power, appoints a Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister.

Prime minister: Francois Fillon

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon
Francois Fillon, a confidante of the president

Francois Fillon worked closely with Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election campaign.

Upon taking office, he promised to carry out the president's reform programme and to secure an "eminent" place for France in the 21st century.

As a minister under President Chirac he overhauled the pension system.

He is seen as a moderate within the UMP and is accustomed to negotiating with France's powerful trades unions.


France enjoys a free press and has more than 100 daily newspapers. Most of them are in private hands and are not linked to political parties.

Public broadcaster Radio France runs services for the domestic audience, French overseas territories and foreign audiences. Radio France Internationale is one of the world's leading international stations. Its Arabic-language Monte Carlo International service is available on mediumwave (AM) and FM in many Middle East countries.

The international French-language channel TV5 Monde, financed by Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, is available globally. Global satellite news channel France 24 launched in December 2006 with services in French and English. Its chairman said the channel aimed to present "a different point of view from the Anglo-Saxon world".

France's flagship TV station, TF1, was privatised in 1987. The growth of satellite and cable has led to a proliferation of channels. The biggest satellite pay-TV operators, CanalSatellite and TPS, are set to merge. The new group will be controlled by media giant Vivendi Universal.

Radio France building, Paris
Radio France, the country's public broadcaster

A digital terrestrial TV service, with more than a dozen free-to-air channels, is being rolled out.

France's long-established commercial radio stations, particularly RTL and Europe 1, still command large audiences. They have been joined by a multiplicity of FM stations, often consolidated into successful commercial networks such as hit music station NRJ and oldies station Nostalgie.

Profile: Nicolas Sarkozy

France's new President Nicolas Sarkozy casts himself as a moderniser, championing a clean break with the country's traditional ruling elite.

Nicolas Sarkozy
President Sarkozy says he has a duty to bring about change
The need to adapt to the fast-moving modern world was a key point in his inaugural address. He pledged to revive the work ethic, promote new initiatives and fight intolerance, including racism.

He has a powerful mandate from the French people to push through reforms, after a huge turnout in the election which saw him triumph over Socialist candidate Segolene Royal.

As a highly combative interior minister and leader of the ruling UMP he sharply divided opinion in France - not least by adopting a tough stance on immigration.

He famously described young delinquents in the Paris suburbs as racaille, or "rabble".

That blunt comment - made before the 2005 riots - encouraged some critics to put him in the same category as far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Integration policy

Mr Sarkozy, 52, pushed through measures to curb illegal immigration - including deportations - and to integrate skilled migrants into French society.

Cartoon of Nicholas Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy is a gift to cartoonists

But he has also advocated positive discrimination to help reduce youth unemployment - a challenge to those wedded to the French idea of equality. His call for state help for Muslims to build mosques was also controversial.

Correspondents say that one of the big questions now is whether he will be able to temper his abrasive style to play the traditional unifying role of the president of France.

Unlike most of the French ruling class, Mr Sarkozy did not go to the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, but trained as a lawyer.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a French mother of Greek Jewish origin, he was baptised a Roman Catholic and grew up in Paris.

One of his main political influences is not French but British, according to his other biographer, Nicolas Domenach.

"He admires Tony Blair hugely - for many reasons," he says.

"Tony Blair was able to seduce the media, in the way Sarkozy does. And Sarkozy looks at how Tony Blair was able to sell his political ideology."

Mr Sarkozy has called for "a rupture with a certain style of politics", saying he wants to encourage social mobility, better schools and cuts in public sector staff.

Rise through the ranks

He served as mayor of the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly from 1983 to 2002, then became interior minister. He also had a brief spell as finance minister in 2004.

Jacques Chirac
President Chirac famously fell out with Mr Sarkozy
"He's hyperactive, he's ambitious, he's a heavy worker, a workaholic, he never rests," says Anita Hausser, who wrote a biography of Mr Sarkozy and is political editor at the French broadcaster LCI.

She says his appeal is simple.

"He was a lawyer, so he seems close to the people, and he wants to show them that he understands their problems and that he will solve their problems."

It seems that rather than a new ideology, he is a pragmatist who will use any solution as long as it works, the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says.

Initially a protege of President Chirac, the two fell out dramatically when Mr Sarkozy backed a Chirac rival for the presidency in 1995 - a slight that has never been forgotten.

Even those on the left in France admit Mr Sarkozy is a formidable political force.

He has shown strong protectionist instincts - pouring state funds into saving the ailing French company Alstom. Yet he also promises to make the French less scared of economic success.

He is often described as an Atlanticist, but he too was against the war in Iraq. He is not too keen on the old Franco-German alliance - but upset new EU members by saying those with lower taxes than old Europe should not receive EU subsidies.

He has voiced opposition to Turkey's bid to join the EU.

Twice married, Mr Sarkozy has three children - the third by his current wife Cecilia.

French unions test Sarkozy's resolve

The French elected Nicolas Sarkozy because they said they wanted change. So why, just seven months into his presidency and reform programme, are transport workers, electricity workers, students, teachers, civil servants, magistrates and even opera singers preparing to go on strike, asks the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby.

Nicolas Sarkozy waves at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (9 November 2007)
Nicolas Sarkozy is poised to take on strikers in several sectors this week

Last week, while on a visit to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, the resting place of Charles de Gaulle, President Sarkozy was asked by a journalist whether he was prepared for what was clearly going to be a very difficult week of strikes.

"It's not the week that's difficult," he snapped. "It's my job!"

There is no doubt that in trying to reform his country, the French leader faces an enormous challenge.

Despite the fact that he was elected on a promise to change France after more than a decade of virtual inertia under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy's programme of economic reform has hardly been welcomed.

Open-ended strike

From Tuesday evening, the nation's rail network will grind to a halt as transport workers protest at plans to end their special retirement perks, which allow some staff like train drivers to retire on full pensions at 50.

A passenger waits for a train at an empty platform in Paris (18 October 2007)
October's strike crippled public transport across France for two days

The strike is their second in a month and this time it is open-ended.

Hot on their heels, Paris Metro workers have called a day of action on Wednesday, which militant unions hope to extend.

The action will be supported by gas and electricity workers, while protests by teachers and students are also planned next week, with the students threatening to block university campuses and train stations.

Plans to overhaul the judicial service and to shut some courthouses have prompted magistrates to strike too - just after a massive one-day strike planned by civil servants on 20 November.

Stubbornly tenacious

Used to protesting on the streets rather than via parliament, the French can be stubbornly tenacious when it comes to striking.

In 1995, three continual weeks of strikes by public and transport workers against planned reforms brought France to its knees and forced the government to back off.

Students attend a general assembly at the Rennes II University with a banner reading: "Work kills, long live the strike!"
[Mr Sarkozy] will not be trapped in confrontation on the street where it's clear that one or the other side is sure to lose in the end
Xavier Timbeau

Mr Sarkozy, though, is made of stronger stuff. So, will he choose to fight till the last and appropriate that famous adage of Margaret Thatcher?

"To those waiting...[for] the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!" she said in a defiant speech at the Conservative Party conference in 1980.

He is unlikely to hold out though, according to the economist, Xavier Timbeau.

"Sarkozy knows that a hard conflict will only strengthen the opposition," he says.

"He will not be trapped in confrontation on the street where it's clear that one or the other side is sure to lose in the end."

"Even if he won a victory, he knows he'd have to pay for it very dearly sooner or later. What he wants is negotiation."

Unfulfilled promises

The unions complain there has not been enough negotiation and that Mr Sarkozy is too bullish and brutal in imposing his reforms.

Mr Timbeau insists they are being unrealistic.

CGT Railway leader at the state-owned SNCF railway company, Didier Le Reste (C), speaks during a meeting with union members to discuss the strike (12 November 2007)
The strikes will be a major test of Mr Sarkozy's reform package

"They dream of a model that looks a bit like the UK, but they don't see it took Britain the Thatcher years of pain to get there. The French are not ready yet to inflict that pain on themselves," he adds.

"Work more to earn more" was Mr Sarkozy's electoral campaign slogan, but while the people might be working longer, the rising global price of food and fuel means they are not feeling the benefits of those extra hours.

The promise that their purchasing power would increase has not yet been fulfilled and it is causing the ordinary French citizen to grumble.

When the 1995 strikes crippled France, the passive President Chirac let his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, take the blame.

Mr Sarkozy, however, has authored and built his reputation on these reforms, so if they fail, he knows the buck stops with him.

France bracing for strike chaos

Empty railway tracks in Benfeld near Strasbourg, eastern France
French commuters face the bleak prospect of limited train services
Commuters are facing travel chaos in France as transport unions broaden a strike in protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reforms.

Rail employees stopped work at 2000 (1900 GMT) on Tuesday and were joined by workers in the state-run gas and electricity sectors on Wednesday.

Bus and Paris metro services have also joined the open-ended strike.

The next few days will be a real test of Mr Sarkozy's nerve, reports the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby from Paris.

Eurostar has said the first train services from London's new St Pancras terminal will be unaffected by the industrial action.

Contingency plans

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand warned that Wednesday would be "a hellish day for travellers and perhaps for many days beyond that".

The French people approved these reforms
Nicolas Sarkozy

That view was echoed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon who told parliament: "Millions of French people will be deprived of their fundamental freedom, the freedom of movement and even perhaps to work."

More than 300km (190 miles) of traffic jams were reported on roads heading into Paris, twice the daily average.

The BBC's Alasdair Sandford in Paris says there are a lot more cars, scooters and bicycles on the capital's roads - some people even opted for roller blades to beat the traffic.

He says there are some train services operating but far fewer than normal and that the national picture is bleak.

Only 90 of the country's 700 high-speed TGV trains are set to run, commuter train services will also be severely reduced, and there will be "almost no" metro service in Paris, metro operator RATP and rail operator SNCF warned earlier on Wednesday.

Many Parisians were planning to share cars, rent hotel rooms close to their offices or simply stay at home.

"I'll work on my calves," Paris accountant Xavier Basset told the Associated Press news agency as he was preparing for a 6km (4 mile) walk to his office.

Mandate for change

Mr Sarkozy wants to cut pensions that allow some public employees to retire as early as 50 and says he is determined to stay the course, despite the strike threat.

"I will carry out these reforms right to the end. Nothing will put me off my goal," he told the European Parliament during a visit to Strasbourg, reminding everyone that he was elected on a reform mandate.

"The French people approved these reforms. I told them all about it before the elections so that I would be able to do what was necessary afterwards," AFP quoted him as saying.

But a spokesman for the CGT trade union disagreed with Mr Sarkozy's logic.

"If reforms for the French citizen means that they are going to be working more and getting less pension at the end of the deal, I'm not quite sure all the French are agreeing with this approach," Oliver Sekai told the BBC.

Teachers and civil servants look set to become the next groups to join the strike on 20 November.

Our correspondent says that Mr Sarkozy's resolve to stand up to France's powerful unions now faces a real test and his reputation rides on his success.

And though he has promised he will stand firm against the strikes, our correspondent adds, at the same time he will be anxious to avoid the kind of street protests which occurred in 1995 when the French government last tried to reform the pension system.