In 1974, a Pilocene fossil of a female Australopithecus afarensis was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Paleoanthropologist Donald Johnson and his graduate student, Tom Grey, found part of an an arm bone in the ravines near Hadar in northern Ethiopia. The team went on to find 47 bones – which comprised of almost 40 percent of the skeleton.
The skeleton was significant because the structure of the knee and pelvis shows that the female ancient hominid walked on two legs with her body upright. Lucy was named after the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. It was a song that the camp of scientists had been listening to on their archaeological expedition.
Lucy was three-and-a-half feet tall. She had long dangly arms and short legs (similar to a chimpanzee and other apes). She also had a small brain and an ape-like head. The discovery of Lucy revealed that bipedalism preceded many of the other changes between apes and modern humans. Lucy also had the traits for tree-climbing.
Recently, Lucy’s skeleton revealed something new to scientists. The new findings were posted in Nature in an article titled: “Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree”.
The team of scientists was led by anthropologist John Kappelman of the University of Texas at Austin. His team took CT scans of Lucy’s fossilized bones. They generated more than 35,000 images. The CT scans revealed fracturing that was different from bone fractures that occur to bones that had been buried in sediment.
The scientists compared Lucy’s fractures with images of fractures seen in hospital emergency rooms. They looked very similar to Lucy’s fractures. This revealed that Lucy was alive when the fractures occurred. However, there was no indication that the fractures had healed over time. This indicates that Lucy died not long after fracturing her arms.
How did those fractures occur? In the Nature article, the scientists explain as follows: “…her cause of death was a vertical deceleration event or impact following a fall from a considerable height that produced compressive and hinge (greenstick) fractures in multiple skeletal elements. Impacts that are so severe as to cause concomitant fractures usually also damage internal organs.”
In short, scientists believe that Lucy fell out of tree and landed on her feet. She then fell over and braced herself with her arms, causing the fractures. Lucy likely died within moments after her fall. It’s possible that she may have been sleeping in the tree (in order to avoid large predators).
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