Famed “Lucy” Fossils Discovered in Ethiopia, 40 Years Ago

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Famed “Lucy” Fossils Discovered in Ethiopia, 40 Years Ago

Unread postby selam sew » 25 Nov 2014 09:51

While hunting for fossils in Ethiopia’s Afar Triangle on November 24, 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and graduate student Tom Gray stumbled upon the partial remains of a previously unknown species of ape-like hominid. Nicknamed “Lucy,” the mysterious skeleton was eventually classified as a 3.2 million-year-old “Australopithecus afarensis”—one of humankind’s earliest ancestors. The headline-grabbing find filled in crucial gaps in the human family tree, but it also shook up ideas about early human evolution and upright walking. Forty years later, learn the story behind the fossil that permanently changed scientists’ understanding of human origins.
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A sculptor's rendering of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis on display in 2007. (Credit: Dave Einsel/Getty Images)


Dr. Donald Johanson woke up on the morning of November 24, 1974, feeling lucky. The paleoanthropologist—then a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland—was several weeks into his third expedition to Hadar, Ethiopia, a site that had proven to be a treasure trove of early fossil remains. His international field team had already found leg bones and several jaws that were among the oldest examples of hominids—the family of bipedal primates that includes humans and their ancestors—and Johanson was convinced that an even bigger discovery was in the offing. When an American graduate student named Tom Gray announced he was leaving to scout out a nearby fossil site, Johanson had a hunch he should tag along. “I felt a strong subconscious urge to go with Tom,” he later wrote. “I felt it was one of those days…when something terrific might happen.” Ignoring the already scorching heat and the mountain of paperwork on his worktable, Johanson hopped in a Land Rover with Gray and made the four-mile journey to a gully on an ancient, dried out lakebed. Before he left, he made a brief note in his journal: “To Locality 162 with Gray in AM. Feel good.”
Johanson and Gray’s search turned up very little at first. The pair found a few animal bones and teeth, but nothing extraordinary. After a few hours of scouring the sunbaked ground, they decided to take a detour through a nearby gully for one last look. There, Johanson spotted what he instantly recognized as a piece of hominid elbow bone protruding from the dirt. When he and Gray bent down to examine it, they saw that it rested next to other pieces of thighbone, vertebrae and ribs. All appeared to belong to the same skeleton. “We were just astounded,” Johanson later told the New York Times. “You just don’t expect to find this much of a single individual.” Johanson and Gray raced to tell their colleagues. As they drove up to their camp, Gray laid on the horn and yelled out, “We’ve got it! Oh, Jesus, we’ve got it. We’ve got the whole thing!”
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That night, the jubilant field team celebrated the discovery over dinner and several cans of beer. In the background, a stereo blared with The Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on repeat. When the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on, someone suggested calling the new skeleton “Lucy.” The name stuck.
Along with the expedition’s co-director, the French geologist Maurice Taieb, Johanson and the rest of the field team spent the next several days scouring the Lucy discovery site. They found dozens of intact pieces of leg, pelvis, hand and arm bones as well as a lower jawbone, teeth and part of the skull. All told, the pieces amounted to about 40 percent of what appeared to be at least a three million-year-old hominid skeleton. A more ancient or complete specimen had never been discovered.
When pieced together, the small bits of brown bone painted a stunning picture of what Lucy would have looked like. She was surprisingly small—slightly less than 4 feet tall—and would have tipped the scales at roughly 60 pounds. Her larger pelvic opening suggested she was female, and wear on her wisdom teeth hinted she was probably around 20 years old when she died (more recent estimates suggest she may have been closer to 12 or 13). She would have appeared more ape-like than human, with long arms and a protruding belly. Unlike knuckle-dragging apes, however, the structure of her bones showed that she walked upright on two legs.
In this regard, Lucy was like nothing the researchers had ever seen. Anthropologists had often speculated that erect posture had developed as hominids evolved larger brains, but Lucy’s brain was only the size of a grapefruit—roughly as big as a chimpanzee’s. This suggested that upright walking had developed long before larger brains. She “had a tiny brain,” Johanson later wrote in his 1981 book on Lucy, “and yet walked erect…here was an ape-brained little creature with a pelvis and leg bones almost identical in function with those of modern humans.” ...Read More on History.com




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