The discovery of a skeleton called “Lucy” in 1974 sent waves through the scientific community, as she essentially represented a “missing link“ between our ape ancestors and modern-day humans. Lucy hails from the species Australopithecus afarensis, natives of Eastern Africa around 3 million years ago.
Lucy walked upright, possessed a face resembling a cross between modern humans and apes, and, like many Australopithecus, displayed other traits familiar to us. Lucy the Hominid told a story through her bones, but she did much more than that. For many people, Lucy started the debate about what it means to be human.
Lucy Is Roughly 3.2 Million Years Old
Australopithecus afarensis lived roughly between 2.95 and 3.85 million years ago. In Lucy’s case, carbon dating her bones proved impossible; a method called Argon-Argon dating, however, estimated the time frame she lived using the soil content surrounding her remains.
Based on these results, scientists concluded Lucy is “just less than 3.18 million years old.”
She Was Likely A Young Adult When She Died
Researchers agree Lucy died as a young adult. Several pieces of skeletal evidence led to this conclusion, including clues in her teeth. Lucy’s wisdom teeth came in and showed signs of wear. Several different points of fusion on her bones also indicate she possessed a fully formed skeleton.
These factors, along with a lack of aging signs, point to her being fully grown but not very old.
Lucy Got Her Name From A Beatles Song
Paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson discovered Lucy in 1974. At the time, the Beatles remained wildly popular. After Johanson uncovered the skeleton, he and his team members returned to camp for a celebration. He put on a Beatles cassette and the song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” inspired the skeleton’s name.
Scientists Don’t Know Exactly How She Died, But They Know She Wasn’t Eaten
While scientists still don’t know how Lucy died, it appears she didn’t suffer an attack by a predator. According to researchers at Arizona State University:
Typically, animals that were killed by predators and then scavenged by other animals (such as hyenas) will show evidence of chewing, crushing, and gnawing on the bones. The ends of long bones are often missing, and their shafts are sometimes broken (which enables the predator to get to the marrow).
Lucy’s skeleton didn’t show any of these signs, except for one single puncture mark from a carnivore’s tooth on her pelvic bone.
We Know Her Gender Due To Size Differences Within Her Species
Lucy only stood around 3.5 feet tall and weighed between 60-65 pounds. Although some scientists believe her small size shouldn’t lead to assumptions about her gender, others think it points towards her being female. The species Australopithecus afarensis is sexually dimorphic, meaning the males differed in size and appearance from the females.
In most sexually dimorphic ape species, the males possessed larger teeth – but with Australopithecus afarensis, teeth size in both men and women remained the same. Scientists posit the theory that this species didn’t require large teeth for displays of male dominance.
Some Experts Believe She Died After Falling From A Tree
To date, only one plausible theory exists for Lucy’s death: a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence points to a fall from a great height. Lucy suffered compressive fractures to many areas of her body, and some experts believe she died from these injuries. Australopithecus afarensis transitioned from living in trees to walking upright on the ground, so a fall from a high tree makes sense.
With no evidence of carnivores feeding on her body, a predator likely didn’t attack or kill Lucy. Scientists, however, may never determine her cause of death with any certainty.
Her Skeleton Shows Evidence That She Walked Upright
According to researchers, Lucy’s skeleton bears “evidence clearly pointing to bipedality.” Her legs hold a few clues, as the knee joints and kneecaps show signs of biped motion. Her pelvis also indicates adaptations for standing upright rather than living on all fours.
Also, her toes look closer to human toes than those of an ape (big toe forward instead of to the side), and her spinal vertebrae possess the curvature needed for standing up straight.
She Came From Eastern Africa
The territory of Australopithecus afarensis covered the modern countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in Eastern Africa. Lucy herself turned up at an archeological dig site near the Ethiopian village of Hadar.
Researchers Found Many More Bones Than They Were Expecting
In most cases, archeological digs only turn up a few bones in less-than-ideal condition. But with Lucy, archeologists unearthed around 40% of a complete skeleton. Even better, researchers didn’t discover any bone duplications at the site.
More than one of a specific bone indicates the presence of another body. Thankfully, no duplications existed among the several hundred bone fragments uncovered, making it more likely they all came from a single skeleton.
Lucy Is Not Alone
Though an exciting find for scientists, Lucy is far from the only member of Australopithecus afarensis found millions of years after death. Archeologists also discovered a group of skeletons known as “The First Family” (also from Hadar) and the Dikika “child skeleton.”
Other scientists uncovered Au. afarensis fossils in Laetoli, Tanzania, along with the oldest documented bipedal footprint trails.
She Still Lives In Ethiopia
The original Lucy skeleton found a safe and permanent home in the Paleoanthropology Laboratories of the National Museum of Ethiopia, located in the capital of Addis Ababa. Before that, she traveled the United States in 2007, and many US institutions own scans and reproductions of her bones for use in further studies.