Lucy: the Oldest Ancestor to Mankind?

Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis), approximately 3.2 million years ago (Replica of her skull at the Origins Museum)

How many of you have pondered upon the origin of humanity? Or who could have been the oldest ancestor to mankind? Or how we are all related to that ancestor?

I know some will say Adam and Eve… but what if it was Lucy and someone else instead? What if it was not somewhere in the Middle East but rather on the African continent?

Well, today, we will be talking about Lucy, the first human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia, in Africa, the cradle of humanity.

Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Africa, at Hadar, a site in the Awash Valley of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia, by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History . In Ethiopia she is known as Dinkinesh, meaning the marvelous one in Amharic. The Lucy specimen is an early australopithecine and is dated to about 3.2 million years ago. At the time of the findings, it was the most ancient early human – or hominin – ever found. It was also the most complete: 40% of the skeleton had been preserved.

Reconstruction of Lucy’s skeleton, cast from Musee national d’histoire naturelle, Paris (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, you might ask, why is she called Lucy? Well, because the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing on the radio when the archaeologists found her remains. Thus the name Lucy. Lucy belongs to the species of Australopithecus afarensis; afarensis for the Afar region of Ethiopia where she was found. She is one of the most important fossils ever discovered. Her discovery helped solidify the idea that Africa was the cradle of humanity, and a crucial hub for human evolution. Before Lucy, the skeleton of the Taung child dated to about 2.8 million years old had been found in South Africa in 1924, but European archaeologists and scientists refused to admit (as always) that Africa could be important in the study of human evolution. As always, they thought that Europe and Asia were the centers. Aren’t we tired of this Eurocentric view of the world which pretends to give meaning to everything it does not understand? Oh Mama Africa, your beauty and splendor is truly too much for these people that they have to keep denying your place and importance in the world!

Lucy was an upright walker, i.e. she walked standing up, thus dating the bipedalism observed in humans to at least 3.2 million years. She was only about 1 meter tall (3.5 feet). Lucy was a full-grown adult, because she had wisdom teeth and her bones had fused. Unlike modern humans, it would seem that she had grown to full size very quickly, and was about 12 years old when she died. From a 2006 study, the findings of a 3-year-old Australopithecus afarensis suggested that their brains reached their full size much earlier than modern human’s does. Lucy was ape-like in appearance and brain size, but could walk upright like more advanced hominins that lived later like the Taung child (2.8 million years) or the Australopitecus sediba (2.2 million years old). She had powerful arms and long curved toes that paleontologists think allowed her to climb trees as well as walk upright.

Lucy’s finding marked a turning point in our understanding of humanity, and the human lineage. She is a treasure, and although older skeletons have since then been found like the Kenyantropus platyops (3.5 million years) or the Ardipithecus (dated 4.4 million years), she remains a treasure. No wonder, Ethiopians call her Dinkinesh or “you are marvelous” or “marvelous one“, for Lucy truly is marvelous as she has allowed to place Africa back at the center as the cradle of humanity (Africa was always at the center, but some Eurocentric views would not let her shine). If you are ever in Addis Ababa, please do not forget to visit her (her cast) at the National Museum of Ethiopia . Enjoy!

For more, please check out the Institute of Human History at the Arizona State University (founded by Donald Johanson), the Smithsonian, and this very good article on The BBC website.

Homo Naledi: New Species in the Human Lineage

A reconstruction of Homo naledi's face by paleoartist John Gurche (Source: National Geographic)
A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s face by paleoartist John Gurche (Source: National Geographic)

I know this is old news, but I had to go back to the discovery of the Homo naledi a few months ago. For starters, the word naledi means “star” in the Sotho language, and comes from the name of the Dinaledi chamber (chamber of stars) of the Rising Star cave system where the fossils were found. South African researchers unveiled Homo naledi last September after discovering the remains of 15 individuals in the Rising Star Cave near Johannesburg. The bones have yet to be dated, making it hard to evaluate where the Homo naledi would fit within the history of the human kind. However, a few information have been gathered.

Homo naledi skeletal specimen (Source: Wikipedia)
Homo naledi skeletal specimen (Source: Wikipedia)

Homo naledi was small and slender with a tiny brain compared to modern humans, but with a human-like skull. The adult males stood at about 150 cm (5 ft) tall, with the females a little shorter. The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. From the first excavations, the hand and feet bones looked unusual, bearing the hallmarks of a creature that made and used stone tools, was an accomplished climber, and stood upright. Studies on the wrist and thumb show that Homo naledi had a powerful grasp.

Until further dating, many questions arise: where does the homo naledi fit in the human evolution? How long ago did the species emerge, and did it live in parallel with other species, in isolation? How related is it to the Homo erectus? Could the Homo naledi and the Home erectus ever have lived in the same era? With these findings in South Africa, it seems that we, humans, are just scratching the surface of so much mystery and know so little! There is so much to learn, and so much to uncover! (Just a parenthesis: as a scientist, I am just stupefied that the people in the video below would touch these fossils with bare hands… and wear no gloves… come’ on this is a million years old specimen!)