Little Bits of History

Down to Earth Lucy

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 24, 2015
Lucy's skeleton

Lucy’s skeleton*

November 24, 1974: Lucy is found (in the ground and without diamonds). Maurice Taieb, French geologist and paleoanthropologist, recognized the historic potential of the Hadar Formation located in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia in 1972. He formed the International Afar Research Expedition (IARE) and invited three prominent scientists to join his search. Donald Johanson (American), Mary Leakey (British), and Yves Coppens (French) joined by four Americans and seven Frenchmen set out for Hadar in the fall of 1973. Some leg bones were discovered at the end of the season in November and they indicated they had belonged to an upright walking hominid. Labeled as specimen AL 129-1, they dated at more than three million years old. This was much older than previous hominid specimens.

The team returned the next year and began to search again. On this day, a little more than 1.5 miles away from the first find, more bones were found near the Awash River. Johanson was going to update his field notes, but instead went to Locality 162 to look for bones. He and Tom Gray spent two hours in increasingly hot temperatures surveying. Johanson played a hunch and looked down in a gully which had already had two passes by other workers. He saw nothing and turned to leave. It was then he saw a fossil. He first saw a bone from an arm and then next to it, a fragment from the back of a skull. A few feet away, he saw a leg bone. The two men searched in earnest and found many more bones, including vertebrae, parts of a pelvis, ribs, and a portion of the jaw. They marked the spot and returned to camp.

In the afternoon, the entire expedition returned to the gully and began to section off the site to prepare for a careful examination of the area. They returned to the camp and a Beatles song was played over and over again that night – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – and that is how their specimen came to be named. Over the next three weeks, they were able to recover about 40% of a female (based on the shape of the pelvis) hominid skeleton. Lucy was three feet, seven inches tall and weighed 64 pounds. She looked a bit like a chimpanzee with a small brain, but the pelvis and leg bones were nearly identical to  modern humans. Johanson was given permission to bring the bones back to his native Ohio.

Lucy’s age was determined using potassium-argon radiometric dating, but the technology had some growing up to do. By later methods, Lucy’s age was determined to be between 3.18 and 3.22 million years old. Lucy’s scientific name is Australopithecus afarensis, Latin for Southern ape from Afar. It is unknown if the species was a direct ancestor to modern Homo sapiens or whether it was just a closely related specimen. There have been other specimens found in Omo, Maka, Fejej, and Belehdelie all in Ethiopia and others were found in Koobi Fora and Lothagam in Kenya.  Lucy’s skeletal reconstruction is on display at the Cleveland Natural History Museum.

At 2.8 million years ago, this places the evolution of our genus very close to 3.0 million years ago, which is when we last see Lucy’s species. – Brian Villmoare

The new species is yet another confirmation that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was not the only potential human ancestor species that roamed in what is now the Afar region of Ethiopia during the middle Pliocene, current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity. – Yohannes Haile-Selassie

Evolution could so easily be disproved if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order. Evolution has passed this test with flying colours. – Richard Dawkins

Uproar against a new idea, and laws to prevent anybody’s accepting it, nearly always can be regarded as a signal that the new idea is just about to be taken for granted. … they didn’t start making laws to prohibit the teaching of evolution until everybody was about to take it for granted. – Gwen Bristow

Also on this day: Little Jamie – in 1993, James Bulger’s murderers were found guilty.
Jump to Nowhere – In 1971, Dan Cooper jumped from a plane and was never seen again.
Wilt the Stilt – In 1960, the basketball player garnered another record.
Alone? – In 1963, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
Originally – In 1859, Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin was published.

* “Lucy Skeleton” by Andrew from Cleveland, Ohio, USA – Lucy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucy_Skeleton.jpg#/media/File:Lucy_Skeleton.jpg

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