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Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray on November 24, 1974, at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia. 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.
Later in the night of November 24, there was much celebration and excitement over the discovery of what looked like a fairly complete hominid skeleton. There was drinking, dancing, and singing; the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was playing over and over. At some point during that night, no one remembers when or by whom, the skeleton was given the name “Lucy.” The name has stuck.
The term hominid refers to a member of the zoological family Hominidae. Hominidae encompasses all species originating after the human/African ape ancestral split, leading to and including all species of Australopithecus and Homo. While these species differ in many ways, hominids share a suite of characteristics that define them as a group. The most conspicuous of these traits is bipedal locomotion, or walking upright.
As in a modern human’s skeleton, Lucy's bones are rife with evidence clearly pointing to bipedality. Her distal femur shows several traits unique to bipedality. The shaft is angled relative to the condyles (knee joint surfaces), which allows bipeds to balance on one leg at a time during locomotion. There is a prominent patellar lip to keep the patella (knee cap) from dislocating due to this angle. Her condyles are large and are thus adapted to handling the added weight that results from shifting from four limbs to two. The pelvis exhibits a number of adaptations to bipedality. The entire structure has been remodeled to accommodate an upright stance and the need to balance the trunk on only one limb with each stride. The talus, in her ankle, shows evidence for a convergent big toe, sacrificing manipulative abilities for efficiency in bipedal locomotion. The vertebrae show evidence of the spinal curvatures necessitated by a permanent upright stance.
Evidence now strongly suggests that the Hadar material, as well as fossils from elsewhere in East Africa from the same time period, belong to a single, sexually dimorphic species known as Australopithecus afarensis. At Hadar, the size difference is very clear, with larger males and smaller females being fairly easy to distinguish. Lucy clearly fits into the smaller group.
No cause has been determined for Lucy’s death. One of the few clues we have is the conspicuous lack of postmortem carnivore and scavenger marks. Typically, animals that were killed by predators and then scavenged by other animals (such as hyaenas) 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). In contrast, the only damage we see on Lucy's bones is a single carnivore tooth puncture mark on the top of her left pubic bone. This is what is called a perimortem injury, one occurring at or around the time of death. If it occurred after she died but while the bone was still fresh, then it may not be related to her death.
There are several indicators which give a fair idea of her age. Her third molars (“wisdom teeth”) are erupted and slightly worn, indicating that she was fully adult. All the ends of her bones had fused and her cranial sutures had closed, indicating completed skeletal development. Her vertebrae show signs of degenerative disease, but this is not always associated with older age. All these indicators, when taken together, suggest that she was a young, but fully mature, adult when she died.
IHO has replicas of Lucy‘s bones, which were produced in the Institute‘s casting and molding laboratories. The “real” Lucy is stored in a specially constructed safe in the Paleoanthropology Laboratories of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Because of the rare and fragile nature of many fossils, including hominids, molds are often made of the original fossils. The molds are then used to create detailed copies, called casts, which can be used for teaching, research, and exhibits.
The hominid-bearing sediments in the Hadar formation are divided into three members. Lucy was found in the highest of these—the Kada Hadar or KH—member. While fossils cannot be dated directly, the deposits in which they are found sometimes contain volcanic flows and ashes, which can now be dated with the 40Ar/39Ar (Argon-Argon) dating technique. Armed with these dates and bolstered by paleomagnetic, paleontological, and sedimentological studies, researchers can place fossils into a dated framework with accuracy and precision. Lucy is dated to just less than 3.18 million years old.
Although several hundred fragments of hominid bone were found at the Lucy site, there was no duplication of bones. A single duplication of even the most modest of bone fragments would have disproved the single skeleton claim, but no such duplication is seen in Lucy. The bones all come from an individual of a single species, a single size, and a single developmental age. In life, she would have stood about three-and-a-half feet tall, and weighed about 60 to 65 pounds.
"Lucy" illustration by Michael Hagelberg.