Fractures prior to death are consistent with ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ … falling out of a tree. (I kid you not.)

We need a little bit of levity sometimes. The fossil ‘Lucy’ represents the bones of a female of the hominin species, Australopithecus afarensis, from the Pliocene Period. About 40% of the skeleton was recovered in 1974 near the village Hadar in the Awash Valley of the Afar (part of the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia). By radiocarbon dating, the specimen is dated to about 3.2 million years ago. The small skull is similar to that of a non-hominin ape, and shows evidence of a walking-gait that was upright and bipedal––similar to later-day humans. This combination supports the view of human evolution that “walking upright and bipedalism preceded increases in brain size.”

“Lucy” acquired her name from the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“, which was reportedly played repeatedly in the expedition camp all evening after the excavation team’s first day at work on the recovery site. After public announcement of the discovery, “Lucy” captured much public interest, becoming a household name at the time (mid-1970s). Lucy became famous worldwide, and the story of her discovery and reconstruction was published in a book. Beginning in 2007, the fossil assembly and associated artifacts were exhibited publicly in an extended 6-year tour of the U.S.

Authors [see attached report] now propose, upon close examination of Lucy’s skeleton, that her cause of death was “a vertical deceleration event, or impact, following a fall from considerable height”––that produced compressive and hinge (greenstick) fractures in multiple skeletal elements. Impacts this severe usually cause concomitant fractures as well as damage to internal organs. Together, these injuries are hypothesized to have caused her death. Lucy has been at the center of a vigorous debate about the role, if any, of arboreal locomotion (climbing trees) in early human evolution. It is therefore ironic that her death can be attributed to injuries resulting from a fall––probably out of a tall tree, thus offering unusual evidence for the presence of arborealism in the Australopithecus afarensis species.

Nature  22 Sept 2o16; 537: 503507

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