“Hey! Look what I found!”

How many times did you scream that as a child?

If you are like me, a lot. I spent a lot of time outdoors playing as a kid. Running around, biking, climbing trees, and basically discovering the world. Exploring.

On many occasions, I was pretty sure I had just made a huge scientific discovery. Finding rocks or sticks that bared an uncanny resemblance to a dinosaur bone or some other wonderful ancient artifact. The object’s scale, material, or the fact that it was nestled in the landscaping rocks to my house didn’t usually raise too much of a concern to me. Neither did my complete lack of knowledge about dinosaur bones or ancient artifacts. I imagined the press coming in and getting the chance to name my discovery for all of science. I was highly imaginative, as most kids are.

Now as an adult, can you imagine this? You have spent years gaining extensive knowledge of bones, you purposely traveled to a specific place to be find bones, and you see a bone poking out of the earth that you can already identify at first sight. At closer examination, it appears to be surrounded by other bones. Not only that, but you can tell pretty quickly that what you have found is unique. Holy Moly!! It must be so exhilarating. Dedicating your life to your passion and then hitting the jackpot.

This is what is must have felt like for Donald Johanson and Tom Gray on the morning of November 24, 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia. They just discovered AL 288-1 also known as Lucy. She is the topic of this exhibit article.

 

What is the Lucy fossil?

Lucy Fossil Skeleton

Credit: “Lucy Mexico”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lucy is a pivotal discovery in the field of archeology. I had heard of the Lucy fossil before, but my memory was fuzzy so I had to dig into some resources for the details. Let me note that I am not an archeologist, anthropologist or paleontologist, so let’s learn together shall we?

  • What does the AL 288-1 mean? The AL refers to the Afar Locality 228. It is a site in the Hadar region of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia known for very old hominin remains. The -1 refers to the fact that she was the first fossil discovered at that site.
  • Why the name Lucy? On the evening of the find, the team celebrated. The festivities included repeated playing of the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”. So the team named her after the song.
  • Why has the Lucy fossil gotten so much attention? It is rare for archeologists to find many bones from the same individual, especially of her age. About 40% of Lucy’s bones were found together which was one of the most complete hominins ever found. I am always amazed when I see images of tiny pieces of bone and how the scientists are able to make something of it. I like puzzles much more than the average person, but this would require immense patience. Take a look on the right to see if you could make sense of these bones strewn about in the dirt. I wonder how long it took them to process and identify it all. Wow.
  • How do we know Lucy was an adult female? Scientists know that she was an adult because of the eruption and wear on her teeth and the fusion of her skull. They also believe she was a female because evidence shows that males of the species were quite a bit larger than females. She is on the smaller side, approximately 3’7″ tall.
  • What species is she? Lucy is an Australopithecus afarensis. From the Latin work australis meaning “of the south” and Greek word pithekos meaning “ape”, thus “southern ape”. The afar refers to the Afar triangle region and -ensis means “belonging to a place”.  So the full name Australopithecus afarensis roughly means southern ape from the place of Afar.
  • When did Australopithecus afarensis live? They lived about 3.85-2.95 million years ago. The species lived for approximately 900,000 years, that is 4 times as long as our species has been around. We know quite a bit about the species because 300 individuals have been identified by their fossils.

    Lucy

    Credit: “LucySmithsonian” by Mpinedag – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  • What did Australopithecus afarensis look like? That is a good question. While I was looking for images I actually had to laugh out loud at several images. They all look very different. I understand the visuals are wonderful to have, but the various interpretations and over-humanizing may be a little heavy-handed in some cases. One museum has the male with his arm draped casually around the shoulders of the female on what looks like a leisurely stroll down the boardwalk. Another museum has a family unit with the father figure visibly upset pulling along the mischievous child and the mother following shamefully behind as if there had just been some altercation. The family individuals also must have had some serious grooming rituals because I see more hair on the average beach-goer than I do on these figures. If you don’t believe me, go google search Australopithecus afarensis family and tell me I am wrong. I am including an image on the right that I personally believe most closely represents what the species would look like, but it is all just educated guesses.
  • What do the bones of Australopithecus afarensis tell us? The species is very interesting because of the combination of ape and human characteristics. At the time of her discovery, she was the most primitive bipedal hominin found. I have included below a side-by-side comparison of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus.
Australopithecus afarensis compared to Homo erectus (lucy fossil bones versus Homo erectus)

Australopithecus afarensis compared to Homo erectus. Credit: Laszlo Meszoly, Harvard U.

  • What do we know about how Australopithecus afarensis lived?
    • Scientists believe that Australopithecus afarensis still spent time in the trees, perhaps gathering food, avoiding predators, or to sleep. They believe this because the length of the arms are longer than the legs. Additionally, the fingers and toes are curved for tree climbing.
    • They likely ate fruits, plants, roots, seeds, insects, and possibly small animals based on the teeth found.
    • Individual skeletons have been found together leading them to believe they may have lived in family-like groups.
    • Lucy lived in an area that had a large lake surrounded by trees. However, other individuals have been found in what was believed to be savannah or sparse trees.
    • It is unknown if the species used any tools. No tools have been found, but bones with visible cut marks have. The debate is on.
    • A set of very human-like footprints have been found that are believed to be from Australopithecus afarensis because of their proximity to discovered bones. They are called the Laetopi footprints. I think these footprints were the inspiration for the family museum exhibit I mentioned earlier because it shows a set of smaller footprints walking next to larger footprints which were both followed by another set of footprints.

 

How studying evolution can help us today

You may be thinking “This is all very interesting, but it isn’t important to me today.” The truth is the study of evolution is very relevant to helping us today and navigating the future. Specifically, it can help us in the fields of:

  1. Medicine. Benefits are familiar because we often hear about them in the media. The study of evolution helps scientists to design vaccines, understand disease transmission, and engineer new drugs.
  2. Agriculture. Biological systems evolve, including insects and diseases. This evolution dramatically affects our ability to produce crops. Knowing how insects and diseases evolve can drive modern agricultural technology.
  3. Conservation. Evolutionary ecology tells us how our current environment came to be. It helps us understand how needs, resources, and competing interests are changing the world today and informs us on how to protect environments or species in jeopardy.

Like a lot of things in this world, one answer brings on a slew of new questions. Thankfully, there are scientists across the world investigating the answers to those questions. We look to them to help us stay healthy, fed, and safe in our ever-changing world.

 

Exploring and evolving

I find it fascinating to understand how we got to where we are today. It feeds my curiosity for answers. I want to become the best me I can be. I want to evolve.

While I may not be the fearless and adventurous type, I definitely can appreciate the human need to explore. It feeds the soul. It can be taking off to see the remote places of the world, but it can also mean the exploration of ideas and thoughts. The quest for answers.

What do you think? Do you explore? Let me know your thoughts in the poll or comments.

How do you prefer to explore?

 

Resources

Australopithecus afarensis at Australian Museum

Australopithecus afarensis: AL 288-1 from eFossils

Australopithecus afarensis essay at Becoming Human

Early Human ‘Lucy’ Swung from the Trees from livescience

eLucy FAQ at University of Texas Austin

Ethiopian desert yields oldest hominid skeleton from UC Berkeley News

Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation at amnh.org

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

Fossilized Footprints at PBS

Fossil Skeleton From Africa Predates Lucy from The New York Times

Lucy (Hominid at AL 288, Ethiopia) at archeology.about.com

Lucy’s Story at ASU Institute of Human Origins

Origins of Humankind at PBS

What does it mean to be human? at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The “Lucy” fossil rewrote the story of humanity at BBC

Understanding Evolution at Berkeley.edu

What was “Lucy”? Fast Facts on an Early Human Ancestor at National Geographic

Wikipedia contributors. “Lucy (Australopithecus).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 May. 2015. Web. 18 May. 2015.