The year was 1974, and a young man named Don Johanson was surveying land in Hadar, in the Afar region of Ethiopia, Africa. The day was November 24th and the scientific community would never be the same.
“They had taken a Land Rover out that day to map in another locality. After a long, hot morning of mapping and surveying for fossils, they decided to head back to the vehicle. Johanson suggested taking an alternate route back to the Land Rover, through a nearby gully. Within moments, he spotted a right proximal ulna (forearm bone) and quickly identified it as a hominid. Shortly thereafter, he saw an occipital (skull) bone, then a femur, some ribs, a pelvis, and the lower jaw. Two weeks later, after many hours of excavation, screening, and sorting, several hundred fragments of bone had been recovered, representing 40 percent of a single hominid skeleton”(https://iho.asu.edu/about/lucys-story).
This discovery is mind-blowing in so many ways. While Lucy is no longer the most complete hominin skeleton every found, she is still the most complete skeleton from 3.2 MYA. Nothing else compares to her completeness and age. (Ardi comes in at about 4.5 MYA and I was unaware of that at the time of this writing).
We can learn a lot about this A. afarensis specimen about not only their species, but about the roots of humanity all together. Getting this glimpse into the important time of around three million years ago reveals many secrets of the past, but if nothing else adds even more.
We have learned about bipedalism, diet and habitat, growth and life cycles. Sexual Dimorphism, the list goes on and on. We know more about Lucy’s species than probably any other out there. (I’d change this to Neanderthals) Why is that? Because Dr. Don Johansson is a genius.
Creating the most public and publicity driven discovery of the century, Lucy went on trips around the world, and Don is a great orator and story teller. He captivates audiences with his tales and stories from when he found afarensis. Even now, 45 years later, his story captivates the minds of the older generation down to the youngest.
As a science communicator Mr. Johanson as made great leaps in the sharing of data, and the story behind his find. There are restaurants, hotels, and sports teams named after Lucy, also known as Dinknesh in the language of Ethiopia. Which means something along the lines of marvelous one. There are few people in this day and age who have not at least heard of Lucy, and considering this discovery is almost half a century old, that is something to be proud of. Even extremely important and new finds such as Homo naledi in Rising Star, is eclipsed by the famous Lucy. (This is arguable is the Neo, and Leto announcements).
Known as an ambassador from the past, this specimen is something truly stunning to behold. Rarely are complete or near complete skeletons found, and it is unheard of prior to Lucy to find one so old. Covering over 40% of her entire body, we can reconstruct this afarensis and see not only what they would have looked like morphologicaly, but as well as how they would have moved, which gives insights to their daily and overall lives.
Lucy is often what brings people into the field, they hear her name and get curious and BAM you’re sucked into the world of Paleoanthropology.
To this day there is so much we can learn about this species, and Lucy in particular that there never seems to never be an end to the research, which is as it should be. Even today Dr. Johanson is going around giving lectures and sharing his, and Lucy’s unique story, explaining her importance, and more about what she means for the anthropological world, and our common lives all the same.
Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis has shined a light on a time period we know very little about, and has shed light on our earliest ancestors, in a direct line, allowing us to learn and learn. Work on Lucy will probably never be finished, and that is ok. With answers come more questions and hypotheses.
The best way to keep Paleoanthropology alive, is by fueling the next generation to be as excited about the past as many of us are today. Lucy is a great starting place and a place where young ones can truly begin to get a grasp of how we got here, answering the age old question of “where did we come from?”.
Only the future, despite her long past, holds the keys to Lucy’s secrets, and the future of the science in general.
Never forget Lucy or the significance of her find, as they have shook up, and continue to shake up the walls of what we know about what it means to be human. Lucy was not human, far from it, but from her skeleton we can glean so much about our own past.
Dinknesh is truly marvelous.
Please enjoy this lecture from Dr. Johanson, recorded only this last month.