Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Who is Lucy the Australopithecus and why was Obama allowed to touch that fossil?



Google has marked the anniversary of the discovery of the fossilised remains in 1974 with a special Google Doodle

41 years ago, a team of archaeologists working in Ethiopia discovered the remnants of an ancient skeleton that became a vital missing piece in the puzzle of how humans came to be.


Nicknamed "Lucy", the skeleton was dated at 3.2 million years old - the oldest known example of a bipedal primate and a crucial stepping stone between apes and homo sapiens.

Google has celebrated the 41st anniversary of Lucy's discovery - November 24 - with a Google Doodle showing the evolution of bipedalism with a simplified version of the March of Progress, the common illustration of human evolution.

In 1974, archaeologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray found 47 bones, around 40 per cent of the skeleton's likely total, giving them enough information about the species to help understand the transition to homo sapiens.

Based on the skeleton's pelvic structure, they deduced that it was female, and gave it the name "Lucy", after Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the Beatles song that was playing back at their camp.

Although Lucy had many of the characteristics of chimpanzees, such as long arms and a protruding belly, the skeleton showed that she primarily walked upright, the earliest example of such a primate. Bipedalism is seen as one of the key distinctions between the Homo genus and Pan, the family of chimpanzee species.

Before her discovery, scientists had speculated that bipedalism came alongside the development of larger brains, but Lucy's was barely larger than those of chimpanzees.

Lucy's species, known as Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived between 3 million and 4 million years ago, and is the closest primate to the Homo genus.

Homo Habilis, the earliest form of Homo, is believed to have descended from Afarensis or subsequent species of Australopithecus before homo sapiens came on the scene about 200,000 years ago.

Google's Doodle shows a walking Australopithecus afarensis is placed in between an ape and modern human, showing how Lucy's discovery filled the gap between the two.

Obama got to touch Lucy Australopithecus

Nowadays, Lucy's bones are kept in a museum in Ethiopia, although they spent six years touring the US from 2008 to 2013.

Barack Obama visited the fossil on a trip to Africa earlier this year, and was permitted to touch it, something usually reserved for scientists.

What did Lucy Australopithecus look like? And what did she eat?

Lucy's skeleton suggests she was around 3 feet 3 inches tall, and weighed around 60 pounds.

Five years ago, a discovery suggested that her species used crude stone tools to cut and eat meat, putting estimates of our ancestors' first use of technology back almost a million years.

"We can now picture Lucy walking around the east African landscape with a stone tool in her hand scavenging and butchering meat," said Dr Shannon McPherron, an archeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

"With stone tools in hand to quickly pull off flesh and break open bones, animal carcases would have become a more attractive source of food."

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