“Lucy” Australopithecus afarensis Died in a Fall

In 1974, in the Afar region of Ethiopia, the remarkably well-preserved and forty percent complete fossil of an ancient human-like animal was discovered.  The excavation team, which included American palaeoanthropologist Donald Carl Johanson, had been playing the track “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles.  The bones represented a female, which subsequently was nicknamed “Lucy”.  The fossils represented a new species of ancient hominin (an animal more closely related to us than to a chimpanzee), the species was named Australopithecus afarensis.  Thanks to some amazing new research, a team of Ethiopian and American scientists, including eminent anthropologist Professor John Kappelman (University of Texas),  have worked out how “Lucy” died – apparently she was fatally injured in a fall from a tree.

Professor John Kappelman Surrounded by Fossils and Casts of Early Hominins

Palaeoanthropologist John Kappelman.

Professor John Kappelman with casts of the bones of “Lucy”.

Picture Credit: University of Texas

Forty-Five Thousand CT Images

The team scanned the fossil bones of this female A. afarensis whilst the fossils were on a tour of the United States.  In total, some 45,000 highly detailed CT scans were produced.  The scans revealed that the extensive fractures on the bones were most likely caused perimortem (at death or shortly before death).  An analysis of the broken bones led the team to postulate that 3.2 million year old “Lucy” was fatally injured after a rapid vertical deceleration event, probably a fall from a tree.

The Demise of “Lucy” Australopithecus afarensis

How did "Lucy" A. afarensis die?

“Lucy” most probably died from injuries received in a fall from a tree.

Picture Credit: University of Texas

Applying New Technologies to Learn More About Fossils

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented that this “cold case” showed how scientists can use a variety of techniques to learn more about the lives and behaviours of ancient animals from the fossil record.  This study is significant as anthropologists have long debated how much time A. afarensis spent in trees.  Being able climb into a tree would have helped keep these small hominins safe from many predators, however, evolutionary adaptations to bipedal walking may have compromised their climbing abilities.  Bad news for “Lucy”, but this new research published in the journal “Nature” has provided a fascinating new dimension into the behaviour of an ancient human-like creature.

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