Lucy In The Sky, Found Underfoot: How fossils found in the 1970's changed the way we think about human development.
Donald Johanson is camping on the edge of a muddy Ethiopian river, the Awash, at a rocky desert site called Hadar. Johanson is searching for human origin fossils. Million-or-more-year-old bones aren’t easy to find—Johanson and his friends are getting ready to end a season of digging.Here are his words, “As a paleoanthropologist—one who studies the fossils of human ancestors—I am superstitious. Many of us are, because the work we do depends a great deal on luck. The fossils we study are extremely rare, and quite a few distinguished paleoanthropologists have gone a lifetime without finding a single one.”
Johanson is one of the lucky ones. He has found several ancient bits of fossilized bone. On this particular day, November 30, 1974, he climbs into a Land Rover and bounces off with an American graduate student, Tom Gray. They head for an old lakebed near Hadar; it was once part of a lush woodland. Now dry, the site holds layers of hardened mud and volcanic ash. Gray and Johanson spend the morning searching the rough hot terrain, and find nothing. On the way back to camp, Johanson suggests a quick detour to a nearby gully. There he sees something.
“That’s a bit of a hominid arm,” he says.
“Can’t be. It’s too small,” says Gray. “Has to be a monkey of some kind.” Johanson shakes his head; he is convinced this is a hominid, part of the human family.
Then they find a skull, and a femur (thighbone), and ribs, part of a pelvis, and some vertebrae. It becomes clear: these are hominid fossils. But can they all be from a single individual? In 1974, no one skeleton as old as this has ever been found.
“I can’t believe it,” Johanson says.
“By God, you’d better believe it!” says Gray, who begins to shout. So does Johanson. They jump up and down, hug each other, and howl in the 110 degree heat.
On the way back to the camp they blast their Land Rover’s horns: a bunch of scientists who have been cooling off in the river come running. “We’ve got the whole thing!” Johanson yells, he knows this is a fossil find that will excite the world. (Eventually these bones will be joined by a lot of other fossils from the gully.)
Ahead of them is a massive job reexamining the site, collecting more fossils, then cleaning and classifying. But that night they celebrate. Someone puts a Beatles tape on a player and blasts it at full volume. No one even tries to sleep; over and over they hear the Beatles hit, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Before morning comes they name the small ancient woman from Hadar. She is “Lucy.” The paleoanthropologists realize she is an Australopithecus afarensis. (Australopithecus is the genus name, which is always capitalized; afarensis, the species, is always written lower case.)
Before Lucy makes her public debut—to much hoopla, this really is a big find—Johanson calls on a graduate student at the University of California, Tim White, to help study her bones. White has big finds in his future and, already, stature in the profession. Richard Leakey (a giant name in the field) gets in a huff about these two newcomers—White and Johanson—and their ability to garner publicity. The Leakeys have been the royal family when it comes to African anthropology. Rivalries abound in this field. It’s a culture where celebrities get attention and Lucy, who is clearly a survivor, captivates the public and the media.
She was once part of an animal world of browsers, grazers, and predators that lived for millions of years in East Africa’s Rift Valley. Her fossilized bones are about 3.2 million years old. Lucy is tiny, about 1 meter tall (3.5 ft.). She didn’t make tools, she couldn’t control fire or use it to cook food; still, it is her likes who survive for more than a million years among the vast herds of hoofed animals, where existence is made chancy by lions, hyenas, and predatory cats (including cheetahs, leopards, and two now extinct sabertooths: Homotherium and Magantereion gracile.
More than a million years? Yes, for at least that long various Australopithecus species are part of the woodland crowd.
A. africanus and A. afarensis (Lucy) are slimly built with small faces, high foreheads, small canine teeth and large molars. Some robust, taller Australopithecines
(A. boisei and A. robustus) have heavy builds and long arms, a crest on top of the skull and thick jaws. All will go extinct, but not before they spawn Homo descendants.
Lucy is in the process of turning to dust when the anthropologists find her at Hadar and assemble her bones. After that she becomes legendary in the scientific world and in the popular media. Is she really 40% complete as her discoverers claim? Probably not: Johanson forgot to count finger and foot bones. As to her sex, no one is absolutely sure she is a female. And a few of today’s paleontologists believe that she isn’t a direct ancestor; that another species led to us. Boy or girl, ancestor or not, Lucy is a celebrity.
What can you do to help you go farther with this story?
1. Be a scholar.
Anthropology is a field filled with fascinating stories. Anthropologists are like detectives. They take small clues and come up with big theories. Anthropology is about human beings, past and now.
Here is a definition from Western Washington University: “Anthropology explores what it means to be human. Anthropology is the scientific study of humankind in all the cultures of the world, both past and present."
In other words, who you are and how you behave has been very different in different times and places. When your ancestors lived in ancient Africa you were very different from who you are today. (And all of us humans had ancestors in very ancient Africa. That content has been called “the cradle of humanity.”)
By the time the medieval world came along, (someone in your family was there—actually lots of someones), we humans had spread across the globe. To be an anthropologist you need to pick a time and place in history and research and write about it. So get started. Pick a time and place, do some research, and describe human life. The web is a good place to start your research.
2. You might want to write a paper about an important anthropologist.
Here are a some women who are important in the field: Margaret Mead (1901-1979), Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960, Mary Leakey (1913-1996), Jane Goodall (1934…), Diane Fossey (1932-1985). Or see who else you can find. Write a good paper and you should be able to use it when you return to school. And, maybe someday, you’ll decide to be an anthropologist.
3. Consider what diggers might find from our civilization one million years from now.
Make two lists: This is what I hope they will find. This is what I think they will find.
4. "The key then to the evolution of Homo must have been a change in the way of life for the ancestral population of Australopithecus—the shift to a full-time life on the ground".—Steven M. Stanley, Children of the Ice Age. What does Stanley mean? Imagine Australopithecus life in the trees and on the ground. What were the dangers in each place? What were the advantages?