A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A paleo-celebrity's contributions to evolutionary science
The first time Lucy left Africa, she flew coach, snugly wrapped in tissue and foam inside a naugahyde bag at the feet of her finder, anthropologist Don Johanson. It was 1975, and she was Cleveland-bound for a few years of scientific scrutiny.
More than three decades later, the 3.2-million-year-old paleo-celebrity has returned with an entourage and fanfare becoming her status. Billed as "the world's most famous fossil," she is the centerpiece of Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, a new exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Older hominid fossils have been unearthed; other contenders challenge her central place on our family tree as the common ancestor to our genus, Homo. But Lucy, a de facto ambassador for her species, Australopithecus afarensis, remains a key reference point in the human fossil record, from a time when humanlike hips, not big brains, were the big evolutionary event.
"Lucy is as important today as she was 30-plus years ago," says Penn State anthropologist Nina Jablonski. "Before Lucy, we really had no idea that 'early' hominids were small and very apelike in most attributes. Paleoanthropology has never been the same."
As one of the few hominid skeletons ever found, Lucy offers insight into how her species lived. The riverside forests she inhabited had trees to climb for food or shelter, but Lucy's kind may have gathered in large groups on the ground, based on bones from 13 A. afarensis individuals found together at one site.
Although Lucy's visit comes at the Ethiopian government's behest, it has sparked controversy. Some scientists fear the fragile skeleton might be damaged, which is why the Smithsonian Institution declined to host the show. While Johanson shares concern for the specimen's safety, "seeing the original Lucy," he believes, "will surely heighten public awareness of human origins studies."
Blake Edgar is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and coauthor of From Lucy to Language.