Meet Lucy: The Famous Early Human

There might be a little bit of Lucy in every one of us

By Google Arts & Culture

Reconstruction of Australopithecus africanus by John GurcheSmithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The story begins over 3 million years ago. Modern humans had yet to evolve, but across the plains of Africa, many species of apes were beginning to master walking and stone tools. 'Lucy' was one of these apes, a member of a species known today as Australopithecus afarensis.

Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ("Lucy") Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ("Lucy")Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In 1974, an expedition of paleoanthropologists were searching for early humans in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia - an area which only a few years previously had turned up fossilised kneebones, shins, and jaws.

On the morning of November 24, Donald Johanson and Tom Gray were searching a gully when Johanson spotted the first finds: an arm bone, the back of the skull, and a piece of femur. As they continued, they found vertebrae, part of a pelvis, ribs, and pieces of jaw.

It was the best preserved skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis ever discovered, and remarkably, the bones appeared to be from a single individual. The pair jubilantly returned to camp, and gathered the rest of the team members to continue the search.

That first night, the team celebrated their incredible discovery. At some point during the night they decided to name the skeleton (officially known as AL 288-1) 'Lucy' after the Beatles' song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which they'd been listening to on their tape player.

Over the next three weeks, the team discovered hundreds of fragments, ultimately 40% of a single skeleton. The pelvic bone was particularly important, it helped determine that Lucy was female and that her species walked on two legs.

Lucy was estimated to stand just over a metre tall and weigh around 29kg. She would have looked much more like a chimpanzee than you or me. But despite her differences, she evidently was closely-related to modern human beings.

Lucien by Elisabeth DaynesJeongok Prehistory Museum

Sadly, there's no way if knowing Lucy herself is related to modern humans. But other members of her genus Australopithecus, with their ability to walk on two legs, are almost certainly direct ancestors of us, Homo sapiens sapiens.

Australopithecus afarensisNational Museum of Nature and Science

3.2 million years after her death, as one of the oldest, and best preserved, pre-human skeletons to be discovered, Lucy became something of a celebrity. Museums around the world hold casts and models of her bones, and her name alone connects an unimaginable span of history.

Lucy's bones have now returned to Ethiopia, where they're preserved at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. A cast of her skeleton remains on public display. Appropriately, she has her own Ethiopian name, 'Dinknesh', the Amharic term for 'You are marvellous'.

See the reconstructed replica of Lucy's figure, here, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Use the arrows to explore the exhibit on Human Origins, or click here to learn more about what our ancient ancestors looked like.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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