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Discovery of Lucy Skeleton Continues to be Relevant

Looking Back at Lucy: Ancient Bones Still Carry Powerful Message
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It has been more than 40 years since the discovery in Ethiopia of the early human skeleton named Lucy. She is one of the most famous finds of the 20th century and helped researchers better understand the history of humans.

What visitors find at a natural history museum may seem far removed from the present, but the man who discovered the famous Lucy skeleton, Don Johanson, said the knowledge found in old bones is still relevant today.

“There is a single common origin for humanity. No matter the shape of our eyes, no matter the color of our skin, no matter the shape of our hair, no matter what kind of culture we live in, we all carry those same genes in our body. We are united by our past. We are united by this common beginning,” said Johanson.

In 1974, Johanson discovered 40 percent of Lucy’s skeleton in Ethiopia. At 3.2 million years old, she was at the time the oldest human ancestor yet found.

“And that was a defining moment for me and for paleoanthropology, because for Lucy while she was found so many years ago, still remains terribly important for understanding our earliest beginnings and occupies a very important place on the human family tree as a bridge between more ape-like and more human-like creatures,” he said.

Johanson said Lucy was just over a meter tall, with an ape-like face and a small brain. She had long arms and short legs. She also possessed an important human feature: the ability to walk upright. Johanson said finding Lucy advanced the field of paleoanthropology.

“Lucy’s discovery in 1974 in Ethiopia really sparked and ignited a whole series of expeditions in Ethiopia that helped us flesh out the human family tree and we find out there were many more species on that tree than we had ever known before,” said Johanson.

Johanson said the idea that humans originated from Africa is a relatively recent one.

“Through much of the 20th century, there was this very Eurocentric view that we all evolved in Europe, that that was the finishing school for humanity, but now there’s almost complete consensus among scholars who study human origins that Africa was the place, just as Darwin had predicted way back in the middle 1800s,” he said.

Discoveries such as Lucy not only led scholars to understand the common origins of all humans; it also highlights the uniqueness of the modern man. Today’s human has a complex brain, language and culture. Johanson said these traits allow humans to adapt and overcome the environmental challenges that have occurred and will continue to occur over time.