SEPT. 1, 2016 — A news bulletin from 3.2 million years ago (or so): Lucy, humanity’s famous ancestor, may have died not from old age but from a long fall out of a tree. She flung out her arms to try to break her fall and was conscious when she hit the ground. But she likely died almost immediately from severe internal injuries.
Those are the intriguing conclusions from a team of gumshoe scientists who used modern technology to probe Lucy’s demise.
Lucy, aka AL 288-1, consists of many fragments of bone fossils, or about 40 percent of a female skeleton of the species Australopithecus afarensis. The scientists put Lucy’s bones in a CT scanner and created virtual fragments and three-dimensional models to piece together a more precise idea of Lucy’s entire skeleton.
In a study published Aug. 29 in the journal Nature, the scientists reported that they had found severe fractures in Lucy’s upper right arm, shoulder and knee — injuries that couldn’t have been the result of a trip and a fall from a short distance (Lucy was only about 3 feet tall so she didn’t have far to fall).
If so, the discovery could provide a key clue to how and when humanity’s ancestors abandoned the trees. Some researchers suggest that by Lucy’s time, human ancestors weren’t as adept in the trees because they had set up shop on the ground. If Lucy did fall from a tree, it could bolster that argument.
But some scientists dispute the Nature finding, arguing that the authors haven’t convincingly made their case about whether Lucy’s bones broke before or after her death.
“Elephant bones and hippo ribs appear to have the same kind of breakage,” paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, the original discoverer of Lucy in 1974, told The New York Times. “It’s unlikely they fell out of a tree.”
Awww … snap!
Yes, the saga of Lucy, once relegated to the dusty corridors of academic debate, has now become the World’s Oldest and Coldest Case File. And it is a doozy.
If Lucy tumbled from a tree, the question is: Why?
Did she have a nightmare that she’d left home without her pants (Oops! Sorry, that’s one of ours).
Why would an experienced tree-climber, who purportedly spent many nights in trees to avoid large, hungry predators, suddenly find herself plummeting to the ground?
In other words: Did Lucy fall? Or was she pushed?
Scientists love a good mystery. So do we.
How Lucy lived and died is one of the oldest in the books, and one of the most compelling for humankind.
“We can empathize with her in death, and what we think was her last desperate act, reaching out her hands to break her fall,” University of Texas paleoanthropologist John Kappelman, lead Nature author, tells us. “I’ve lectured on this fossil for 30 years, but in her death she came to life for me.”
Kappelman invites amateur gumshoe-anthropologists to review his team’s evidence and “see if you think our analysis makes sense.”
Researchers, keep digging. Why? In understanding how she died, Lucy comes to life. She becomes, in other words, just a little more human.