Lucy's Bones

[Lucy's Bones, Sacred Stones, & Einstein's Brain]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Lucy's Bones, Sacred Stones, & Einstein's Brain
by Harvey Rachlin

Lucy is one of the most extraordinary finds in paleoanthropological history, perched in the pantheon of hominid discoveries with those from Neanderthal, Java, Mauer, Zhoukoudian, and Taung. Her discovery is all the more remarkable in light of the auspicious circumstances that attended it. Serendipity always plays a major role in the laborious endeavor of finding fossils, but the finding of Lucy was so unlikely as to verge on the miraculous. Lucy was reposing in an area where fossils, once exposed to the surface, erode or are destroyed completely unless found within a few years. If a young American paleoanthropologist hadn't been there to meet her, Lucy might have disappeared into oblivion and humankind's further understanding of its origins delayed for an unknown period.

At least five million years ago, a dramatic change was taking place in the area we now know as Africa: an apelike species of creatures was evolving into our human ancestors. This species roamed certain areas of the land, through lush, verdant forests, across meandering streams teeming with aquatic organisms, past ferociously active volcanoes, large predatory beasts, and deadly quicksand bogs. The climate was warm and favorable to an astonishing variety of animal and plant life. The hominids--the term for the human race including its distant progenitors--lived on the forest ground before moving out to the savannas, expansive open grasslands where the environment was equally perilous. They had small brains and V-shaped jaws with no chins and resembled apes except in one extremely significant respect. Rather than perambulating on four limbs, they walked erect on two feet. Being bipedal freed their hands, enabling them to carry out simple functions that would grow more complex as future species developed.

The unearthing in the mid-1970s of this predecessor of humankind had the amazing effect of compelling scientists to revise their conception of the evolution of the human race.

Since the first great hominid discovery in the mid-nineteenth century, the quest for humankind's origin has been a spirited endeavor in which paleoanthropologists seek out and piece together fossil finds, postulate new species and genus names and evolutionary chains, debate these, and continually reformulate their ideas. Mammal and reptile fossils from eras far deeper in time than those of hominids have been found, but it is the hominid pieces that have been the greatest anthropological treasures.

Exotic names have been attached to the disinterred remains, reflecting the sites where they have been found. In 1856 the first discovery of a Neanderthal (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Germany) in the Neander Valley of Germany revealed a primitive human who lived fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago. The discovery of the Neanderthal, with its low sloping forehead, heavy eyebrow ridges, and large jaw, jarred those who doubted human roots extended so far back in time. A younger ancestor was found next, Cro-Magnon (Musee de l'Homme, Paris), in the Dordogne region of France, estimated to be less than thirty thousand years old. This was an example of Homo sapiens, or a modern human. These individuals painted pictures on the walls of caves, hunted animals for food, and even dabbled in religion. They were tall and had modern faces and large brains.

With the discovery of the Java specimen, or Homo erectus, in Indonesia in 1891 by Eugene Dubois, scientists had to stretch the age of humankind back to half a million years or more. The Java specimen (Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, Leiden, Netherlands) was described as an "ape-man." Disturbing as the idea of evolving from such a primitive creature was to some people, Java Man walked upright and undeniably represented an important phase in human evolutionary development.

The finding of other bones, skulls, and teeth--the fossil remnants from which earlier beings are identified--added more, and sometimes older, hominids to the "family tree." The Mauer mandible (Geologisch- Palaeontologisches Institut, University of Heidelberg), discovered near Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907, had a massive jaw with humanlike teeth and is estimated to be as old as seven hundred thousand years. Peking Man (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, China; Paleontological Institute, Uppsala, Sweden), found at Zhoukoudian, China, in 1927, handled fire and made stone tools and was thought to have lived from a quarter million to a half million years ago. Taung Infant (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa), found in an area called Taung in Cape Province, South Africa, and identified in 1924 by Raymond Dart, an Australian anatomist living in South Africa, was proclaimed a "missing link." More than three decades later, after much doubt was cast by the British anthropological establishment, which said the creature was an ape-skulls of young apes are difficult to distinguish from those of hominids-evidence revealed that it was a two-million-year-old hominid. The 1959 discovery of a very robust australopithecine skull at Olduvai (National Museum, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), by Mary Leakey in Tanganyika, Africa (now Tanzania), revealed another creature who lived 1.75 million years ago; the then-new method of potassium-argon dating made the previously laborious and often inaccurate process of determining the age of fossils virtually conclusive.

The dilemma, and the source of contention for paleoanthropologists, was whether hominid fossils were Homo or Australopithecus (a prehuman genus named by Dart), and further, in what species of the chosen genus a fossil should be placed, or whether a new one needed to be created. Homo species were established, and earlier hominids fit in neatly. Australopithecines were at first categorized as either robustus, stout and vegetarian, or africanus, gracile (slender) and omnivorous. But confusion still existed, complicated when the bogus Piltdown Man was thought to be genuine. It would take new hominid discoveries and years of debating and investigating, utilizing modern technologies, to clear up the confusion and establish a generally agreed-upon evolutionary scheme and explanation.

In 1974 a young American paleoanthropologist of Swedish descent named Donald Johanson was looking for hominid fossils in Hadar, a site in the Afar region of Ethiopia. This was one of many sites in the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa where paleoanthropologists concentrated their searches for hominid fossils from the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs (five million years ago until ten thousand years ago). This was Johanson's second field season in as many years.

On the last day of November, Johanson's assistant, Tom Gray, a graduate student, went over his itinerary for the day. He was uncertain of the location of a particular site for a fossil map being composed and needed some guidance. Johanson was overloaded with work at the camp, but he had a gut feeling that something important had emerged from the ground and was waiting to be discovered, before erosion destroyed it forever. He agreed to help.

They made their way to the fossil site and searched it thoroughly, but nothing remarkable turned up. It was blazing hot; Gray was tired and wanted to return to camp. Johanson obliged, but he chose a circuitous route that would bring them to a desiccated ravine he wanted to canvass. This proved more rewarding than he could ever have imagined. Johanson spotted a bone that he instantly recognized as hominid. Forgetting the heat and their fatigue, the two combed the immediate area, turning up dozens of bones.

The men were incredulous. Paleoanthropologists consider themselves fortunate if they find a single tooth or fragment of bone, lucky indeed if they turn up a fragment of a hominid skull. Johanson and Gray were looking at enough ancient bones to assemble into a skeleton! This was unprecedented.

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