Some of you may have noticed an evolution-themed Google Doodle appear today; the more curious probably discovered that it links to Lucy, the name given to the reconstructed fossilized remains of an ape that stalked the plains of Ethiopia around 3.2 million years ago – roughly 3 million years before anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) officially appeared on the world stage. Today marks the 41st anniversary of her discovery.
Lucy belongs to the extinct species of the ancestral hominid Australopithecus afarensis. Remarkably, unlike most hominid (modern and extinct Great Apes) fossils, up to 40 percent of her skeleton was found intact, allowing paleontologists to make a remarkably accurate reconstruction of her. In honor of her excavation from the Afar Triangle, here are five things you may not have known about this incredible fossil.
1. Scientists aren’t sure how direct an ancestor she was to modern humans
Evolutionary biologists and paleontologists are convinced that the genus that Lucy belonged to – Australopithecus – was the one that eventually gave rise to the 2.8-million-year-old Homo genus to which our species belongs. However, they aren’t sure which specific species of this genus evolved into the Homo genus. When Lucy was discovered, she was initially thought to be the oldest direct ancestor of humans. Nowadays, she is seen as merely a close possibility.
Ironically, although the Google Doodle shows Lucy as our direct ancestor, the analysis of her remains eventually led researchers to question exactly this notion.
2. She may have been able to use stone tools
No stone tools were found at the site of her excavation, but a study back in 2010 revealed that stone tools used to carve and eat meat were discovered dating back 3.4 million years – 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. As Lucy’s species evolved around this time, it only seems plausible to suggest they were the potential users of these tools.
3. She showed that bipedalism preceded an increase in brain size
Although she possessed a small skull, she appeared to also possess the ability to walk upright – a form of motion known as bipedalism. This supports the notion that bipedalism evolved before an increase in brain size, a key stage in our evolutionary history.
Although there are multiple theories as to why it happened, the need for language is often cited as the prime initiator of the dramatic increase in brain size in our own species’ evolutionary history. So although Lucy could walk upright, her own species was far from attaining the neurological hardware necessary for such advanced communication.
4. She could probably climb trees like an ape, too
There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not she was a climber, despite her skeleton implying she was more suited for bipedal motion on the ground. Some studies highlight her long arms, positioned more towards the skull (unlike modern-day humans) as evidence for her ability to grasp branches above her; some researchers even believe she could climb trees quite efficiently.
5. She was named after a Beatles song
After making his discovery, American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson headed back to his campsite. His team then began to serendipitously listen to the song "Lucky in the Sky with Diamonds," and one of the group suggested that Lucy may be a catchier name for the fossil – as opposed to its more technical designation, AL 288-1.