The search for the earliest fossil evidence of the human lineage has been concentrated in East Africa. Here we report the discovery of six hominid specimens from Chad, central Africa, 2,500km from the East African Rift Valley. The fossils include a nearly complete cranium and fragmentary lower jaws. The associated fauna suggest the fossils are between 6 and 7million years old. The fossils display a unique mosaic of primitive and derived characters, and constitute a new genus and species of hominid. The distance from the Rift Valley, and the great antiquity of the fossils, suggest that the earliest members of the hominid clade were more widely distributed than has been thought, and that the divergence between the human and chimpanzee lineages was earlier than indicated by most molecular studies.