41 years ago today, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson discovered an unusual shin bone buried in the loose, dusty rock formations of Hadar, Ethiopia. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but this initial discover would be monumental to our understanding of human evolution.
A year later, Johnson and his team returned to Hadar. Over the following weeks, they located hundreds of bones and bone fragments, all belonging to a single ape-like creature. Eventually, the reconstructed fossil was name “Lucy.”
We now know that Lucy was an Australopithecus, one of our early hominid ancestors. In her day, she stood about three and a half feet tall—about the size of Master Yoda from the Star Wars films. Lucy wasn’t like other apes. She walked upright, for one thing. After assembling her bones in the right order, it was clear that Lucy was a very special specimen, indeed.
Not everyone believed the scientists had unearthed anything spectacular. The chief critics of the findings were religious conservatives who felt the long-established science of human evolution contradicted their own speculations about the history of human civilization, and even the origin of life.
The finding has been repeatedly verified as genuine, however, and was the subject of particularly close academic scrutiny following its discovery. We know the bones came from one specimen—even the tiniest fragment of a duplicate bone would have thrown Lucy’s authenticity into question, but no such duplicates were ever found.
Lucy was clearly not an ape like we know them today, and clearly was not a human child. No, Lucy was a hominid, and her discovery and subsequent popularity helped pave the way for the general public to understand what our ancestors were really like.
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