This post was written by ScIU Social Media Intern Cori Cox.
The skeleton known as Lucy is arguably the most recognizable specimen of the modern human lineage. Anthropologists have used her remains to learn about the behavior and anatomy of Australopithecus afarensis, a member of the modern human lineage, as well as evolution in general. While she is one of the most famous and recognizable skeletons to the general public, she is also beloved in the field of anthropology. Lucy is a 40% complete skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, a species of hominin that lived nearly 3.2 million years ago and is thought to be a human ancestor.
Lucy’s remains were discovered by Dr. Donald Johanson and his then graduate student Dr. Tom Gray in November 1974 during an excavation in Ethiopia. According to Johanson, the duo were out collecting extra data on the land during what was supposed to be a day off from their work. They stumbled upon an ulna (e.g., a lower arm bone) sticking out of the ground when they were returning from surveying nearby and quickly found other large bone fragments in the vicinity. Johanson knew immediately that the specimen was an incredibly old hominin, and that this incomplete skeleton was hugely important. They were incredibly excited by this discovery, and a student at the camp suggested that the skeleton be nicknamed after the Beatles’ hit song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” as the team had been signing it non-stop during their excavation.
Johanson was correct about Lucy’s importance. She has offered key insights regarding the human lineage and how her species would have looked and behaved. For example, Lucy’s skull is so complete that scientists can gather information from the indents inside of the brain case, which was left behind by the long-gone brain tissue. Such information can explain how this species’ brain developed; evidently, this species had a similar developmental timeline during childhood as modern humans.
Anthropologists have debated the species’ sexual dimorphism — that is, how the two sexes of a species would look or behave differently — and just how much time these creatures would spend in the treetops. While it is fairly well understood and agreed upon that Lucy and her family would have been bipedal (i.e., walking upright on two legs), some anthropologists suggest that this species would have also spent a great deal of time in the trees. It is argued that the anatomy of the female’s arms and ribcage suggest that they would have been fully capable and well adapted to spend a great deal of time climbing trees. However, this is widely debated, since similar evidence has not been found in male specimens and the degree of sexual dimorphism in this species is still in question.
While Lucy has been able to teach us a great deal about our own origins, there is more research to be done regarding Australoptithecus afarensis and human origins. Casts of Lucy’s remains can be seen at various museums and institutions around the world. Lucy serves as a symbol of anthropology and evolution for all that have the pleasure of making her acquaintance.
Fun facts about Lucy:
- The incomplete skeleton shown on the right is the first ever discovered Australopithecus afarensis. Although it is technically called AL-288 1, it was soon nicknamed Lucy after the popular Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
- In total, Lucy is 40% of a complete skeleton and lived 3.2 million years ago.
- Lucy was found by Drs. Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in late November 1974 in Ethiopia.
- Australopithecus afarensis is a member of the Hominidae family, and this species is known for their small brains (about ⅓ the size of humans, yet larger than a chimpanzee) that developed at a slow pace, which is similar to modern humans.
- Paleontologists can examine minute details about Lucy’s anatomy to learn about her species, and even about humans. For example, scientists can study the indents left from brain tissue on the inside of her skull to study brain development in this species.
- One of the hottest debates about Australopithecus afarensis is how much time they spent in trees. While it was originally thought that they were mostly bipedal, newer evidence ranging from examining bones in the feet, upper torso, or the general nature of sexual dimorphism in the family suggests that they could have spent more time in trees.
- While there are many casts of Lucy’s remains displayed around the world, her real skeleton is currently housed at the National Museum of Ethiopia in a special safe.
Edited by Lana Ruck and Evan Leake