Lucy: the australopithecine who fell to Earth?

The specimen of Australopithecus afarensis known far beyond the confines of palaeoanthropology as Lucy remains the iconic figure of hominin evolution, 42 years after her discovery by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray near Hadar in the Awash valley of the Afar Depression, Ethiopia. Her skeletal remains were not complete, but sufficient to recognize that they were from the oldest known upright hominin and that they were female, the pelvis having affinities to that of human women rather than other extant apes. Yet her skull was more akin to apes with a brain volume about the same as a modern chimpanzee’s. Part of the reason for her fame stems from being named after a character in a somewhat mystical song by the British pop group, the Beatles, which was played over and over in the palaeontologist’s camp – good job the find wasn’t during the 1990’s acme of gangsta rapper Apache.

Subsequently, the entombing strata were radiometrically dated at around 3.2 Ma. Lucy, in common with most fossils roughly in the human line of descent, has from the outset been the subject of controversy, even at one time being said to be misnamed because of alleged male characteristics; a view swiftly discarded. Like the treasures of Tutankhamun, Lucy’s actual remains have been exhibited far and wide, including a 6-year stay in the US. Fears of damage in transit led the Ethiopian authorities to produce casts for distribution, and Lucy is now restricted to the National Museum in Addis Ababa. As a further precaution, all the actual bones were rendered in digital 3-dimensions using a high-resolution CT scanner during her US sojourn. It is these scans that have led to a surprising development as regards her original fate. Apart from signs of a single carnivore tooth mark, her remains were not devoured by scavengers, nor did early anatomical examinations suggest any sign of disease and she was estimated to have been a young mature female when she died – the cause of death was unknown.

Model of the australopithecus Lucy in the muse...

Model of the Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) in the museum of Barcelona (credit: Wikipedia)

Detailed forensic analysis of the CT scans (Kappelman, J. and 8 others 2016. Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree. Nature, v. 537, published online 29 August 2016, doi:10.1038/nature19332) revealed far more than did the original bones, including evidence for numerous fractures in Lucy’s limbs, ribs and cranium, many of which are of the compressive or ‘greenstick’ kind. Those in the left ankle and leg bones (talus, tibia, fibula and femur) are compressive and suggest a severe vertical impact of the heel with enough force to smash the strongest bones in the body, driving the hip into the pelvis. Damage to the ribs, pelvis and lower spine (sacrum) is commensurate with a further horizontal, frontal impact of the torso. Arm (humerus), wrist (radius)  shoulder blade (scapula) and collar (clavical) bone fractures are typical of injuries sustained when a falling person tries to break a fall by stretching out the arms. Damage to the cranium and lower jaw (mandible) suggest this instinctive defence posture was futile. None of the fractures show signs of healing, so the multiple traumas were immediately fatal.

Forensic reconstruction of how Lucy fell to meet her end. (credit: John Kappelman et al, doi: 10.1038/nature19332)

Forensic reconstruction of how Lucy fell to meet her end. (credit: John Kappelman et al, doi: 10.1038/nature19332)

The traumatic pattern is reminiscent of someone falling onto hard ground from great height; perhaps equivalent to a four- or five-storey building (see animated reconstruction here). In Lucy’s case, the most likely scenario is from a large tree, perhaps while foraging or sleeping in a safe refuge from ground predators. Forensic analysis of newly dead victims of severe falls generally show massive soft tissue damage by penetration of bone fragments or a ‘hydraulic ram effect’ in which abdominal organs are thrust upwards to produce cardiac damage. That Lucy was found almost intact rules out dismemberment by scavengers or transport by flood water. Indeed, the preservation of even tiny slivers of fractured bone seems to suggest her burial in flood plain sediments before decomposition had set in. A question that the authors do not address is whether or not she may have been deliberately interred, which to me seems a possibility that could be drawn from the detailed evidence. I wonder what a modern coroner might conclude: probably misadventure.

More on hominin evolution can be found here.

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