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Famous Human Ancestor, Lucy, Died Falling From a Tree

New research claims to have unearthed a tragic — and rather ironic — fate for one of humanity’s most famous ancestors. “Lucy,” the named skeleton of a hominid who lived in Africa more than 3 million years ago, apparently died after falling out of a tree. Lucy’s remains, which were discovered by archaeologists in Ethiopia […]

Famous Human Ancestor, Lucy, Died Falling From a Tree

New research claims to have unearthed a tragic — and rather ironic — fate for one of humanity’s most famous ancestors. “Lucy,” the named skeleton of a hominid who lived in Africa more than 3 million years ago, apparently died after falling out of a tree.

Lucy’s remains, which were discovered by archaeologists in Ethiopia in 1974, have long served as an important piece of the evolutionary puzzle for understanding how and when humans evolved from apes and other primates. She belongs to the species group Australopithecus afarensis, who resembled chimps with their flat noses, curved fingers, and small brains, but who also possessed canine teeth, arched feet, and the ability to walk upright, just like modern humans.

The new revelations about Lucy’s death were spearheaded by John Kappelman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He analyzed the fossilized bones using CT X-ray scanners, a modern technology that’s powerful enough to detect cracks, defects, holes, and porosity in even the densest of materials.

Kappelman found fractures or breaks in the left shoulder, right ankle, left knee, pelvis, and first rib — injuries consistent with a traumatic fall, according to the many orthopedic surgeons Kappelman consulted for the study.

The pattern of breaks suggest that Lucy fell from a height of at least 40 feet and tried to soften the blow with her arms outstretched as she hit the ground.

“We’ve all fallen, and we know at that instant in time what she was trying to do,” Kappelman said. “We can actually fully identify with her at that moment, and I just felt a wave of empathy that I’ve never felt before with any of the other fossils that I’ve ever studied. My mind just jumped to seeing this little broken form, bleeding out, lying at the foot of a tree.”

With no evidence of bone healing, the scans suggest that the fall was the immediate cause of Lucy’s death. It also paints a more detailed picture of how the Australopithecus afarensis lived, walking upright on the ground and climbing treetops for food and shelter. Despite her sad ending, Lucy continues to provide rich evidence for evolutionary scientists around the world.

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