Anthropology · Ethiopia · Paleontology · Science

November 24, 1973 – Lucy the Australopithecus was Discovered

Hi all,

JenniSlice here, wife of shigles and friend of littlesparksoflife2. I decided to swing by and make an appearance. I, too, am a fan of history and today’s Google Doodle caught my attention!

They were celebrating 41 years since Lucy the Australopithecus was discovered in Ethiopia by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson.

Paleoanthropology is a combination of paleontology and anthropology. Basically, a paleoanthropology is the study of ancient (and dead) humans. – Wikipedia article

Given that it is today’s Doodle, I thought I’d explore a few of the facts that the news articles find boring, yet I find fascinating.

One little caveat before we begin — regardless of political and religious views, I am approaching this from science’s understanding of our friend Lucy. I believe that there are many gaps which need to be filled. I personally do not agree with all of the views; however, I also believe that openly exploring and learning more with the information we currently have is the only way for each community to unite. Ok, with that out of the way, I’ll proceed.

Naming Lucy

Why “Lucy?” Well, because AL 288-1 doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue! She was named after the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” This was played loudly and repeatedly during the recovery of AL 288-1 or Lucy the Australopithecus.

… Lucy in the Skyyyy with Diamonds …
… Lucy in the Skyyyy with Diamonds …
… Lucy in the Skyyyy with Diamonds …
(You get the idea)

Lucy is the name for this particular individual within the species  Australopithecus afarensis. In the Amharic language, her species can also be called Dinkinesh, which means “You are marvelous.”

Lucy the Australopithecus skeleton
Lucy the Australopithecus
Image Source: Wikipedia

They found approximately 40% of a complete hominin skeleton.

Fun Fact: Hominin, hominid, and hominoid are all different. In short, it has to do with the branch the subject is swinging from or running to: chimp or human (pun intended). Additional information can be found in Wikipedia or in your local university’s paleoanthropology department.

Lucy was little! She was 3 ft 7 in (1.1 m) tall and weighed 64 lbs (29 kg). If she had the mental capacity to drive (she did not), she would have been allowed to use handicapped parking.

Based on the fragments of the bone from the skull, they know that her brain was small like a chimpanzee’s. Also, from her pelvis and femur, scientists know that she walked upright. Based on her close relation to chimpanzees (and some humans I know), they project her as a hairy little lady.

Image Source: Independent

So, Lucy’s species line was walking upright prior to talking and communicating with higher intelligence (insert political jabs as you see fit). This is another reason for the difference in the hominin/id/oid.

They can see a little bit of “knock-kneed” damage on the femur which is indicative of walking upright (vs. on all four limbs like chimpanzees do). Her humerus to femur ratio, while longer than the human ratio, was much shorter than a chimpanzee’s. This also indicated that she wouldn’t have been able to walk on hands and feet like our modern hairy cousins.

Her gender was determined from her hip and pubic shape and size. There is some criticism of this view. In order to shape her pelvis, some assumptions had to be made as to the shape of her hip. There was damage to the hips over the prior millions of years, so scientists had to make assumptions based on human skeleton structure. The problem is, they had never had an upright-walking, small-cranium specimen, so there is criticism about how the hips were aligned. They determined her as a female, but the distinguishing child-bearing hips that human females have wouldn’t be necessary in the Australopithecus afarensis offspring. So, some scientists argue that Lucy may be a Lucas; regardless, we will proceed with Lucy.

Her diet was more in line with that of gorillas or chimpanzees today. Great apes have longer intestines built for processing more plants than humans are designed to consume. Our bodies are no longer designed to be vegetarians. Looking at a gorilla gut, you can see the difference from our ideal physique.

Gorilla swinging in tree
Image Source: Wikipedia

Discovering Lucy

Johanson and the graduate student, Tom Gray, returned to a specific area at an excavation site they were searching. When they turned to leave, they saw an arm bone sticking out of a slope.

Of course, my mind plays this out as a moving skeleton waving its arm to get attention–not likely.

Over the following three weeks, the team sifted through the dirt and carefully extracted Lucy. They recovered 40% of her skeleton and set the stage for all that we know about her. After long days of digging, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” played as the background music every night in camp. Can you imagine the exhaustion and excitement?

Traveling Lucy

From 2007-2013, Lucy traveled the world. There was natural concern over damaging the skeleton, but the risk was taken and she traveled the world. She now rests in  Ethiopia where she lived her life 3.2 million years ago.

There is a great deal more to learn to bridge any gap (or giant chasm) between religion and science. This fan of history believes there is room for both to explore and learn together.



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