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“Little Lucy” Skeleton Discovered in Ethiopia

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Big doings on what used to be called the “missing link” front over in the dusty Dikika region of eastern Ethiopia. A young Ethiopian scientist has uncovered a remarkably complete 3.3-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil specimen in the delicate, poignant frame of a three-year-old girl.

The little girl is of the same species as the famous “Lucy” (discovered nearby in 1974) and the stunning find consists of her whole skull, entire torso, and key parts of her upper and lower limbs, causing palaeoanthropologists hither and yon to do a little archaic dance of joy. Such geologically old juvenile specimens are exceedingly rare, and in fact, one has to skip forward three million years — to a Neanderthal infant from Syria — to find a comparably complete hominin juvenile skeleton.

ZeresenayAlemseged “In my opinion, afarensis is a very good transitional species for what was before four million years ago and what came after three million years,” discoverer and dig leader Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told the BBC.

Lucy'sBaby “[The species had] a mixture of ape-like and human-like features. This puts afarensis in a special position to play a pivotal role in the story of what we are and where we come from,” said Alemseged, who spent five years removing a slab of sandstone one grain at a time from around “Little Lucy,” as the specimen is affectionately called by some.

Found in a river bed, the toddler — who walked on two legs but may have also still swung from the trees from long arms, curled fingers, and ape-like shoulders — must have been quickly covered with sediment following her early demise, and was thus preserved so completely that her hyoid — the dainty little bone that holds open the throat — survives, allowing scientists to “understand what the voice box was like and about the kind of sound this creature made,” said Alemseged.

Initial indications are that her voice was likely ape-like.

The most exciting human-like trait of the species, though, is a developmental discovery attributable directly to the Dikika child. Her brain is actually smaller than it would be for a comparably aged ape, meaning this toddler and her kin already displayed one of the most fundamentally human developmental traits of all, neoteny – that is, slow and gradual development throughout an extended childhood.

Physical adulthood begins in chimps at about two-years years; while in humans it doesn’t occur until between the 14th and 17th years, enabling human higher functions to fully develop. Lucy’s baby was already headed in that direction. “She is on the cusp of humanity,” enthused Dr. Alemseged.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Nancy

    Considering where these things seem to be on the family tree, I don’t know as I’d call it “little girl” any more than I’d refer to Lucy as a “woman” instead of just “a female”. While the foramen magnum & hip complexes confirm they were pretty fully bipedal, not much else is known, and in other respects they’re pretty simian. Kind of like referring to Cheetah the Chimp as “a man”. Still, it is certainly extremely interesting & can only become even more so as they wrest the details from the morphology. This thing was 3-1/2 YEARS being picked out of the sandstone! Probably half the staff has gone blind with the closeup work by now.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Nancy, the “little girl” appellation is certainly debatable, and it comes down to what traits do you place the higher value on. She appears to have been more or less exactly halfway between ape and modern human, a fascinating place to be!

  • Nancy

    The REALLY interesting part is the hyoid bone, which implies strongly she had the capacity for speech & language! Now that is going to be a fight worth watching amongst anatomists, human evolutionists, and everybody else & their mothers. I’d be interested to see the internal brain cast as well; coupled with the hyoid, it would definitely stoke the case for actual speech. As those few who assert that the (also newly-discovered) Homo Florensis, i.e. “Hobbits” of Indonesia are not human because of the small size of their brains should know, it isn’t only the size, it’s the complexity of the folds that determines intelligence levels. Even that is at issue. Anatole France had a brain only slightly larger than a chimp’s, but it was highly convuted. The more wrinkles, the more surface, the more synapses, the higher the intelligence.

    This is going to be fun & very interesting.

  • duane

    Obviously a hoax. If I took this seriously I would have to start believing that our species is changing over time, almost like an evolution of form. And that’s obviously impossible.

  • Nancy

    I thought that was a pretty funny comment, until I realized you might just be serious.

  • duane

    Just joshin’ Nancy. I have FAITH in evolution.

  • http://www.asmat.eu Asmat

    It is almost clear that Africa is human origin. Many discoveries has been made also at Chad.

  • rhawley

    I think it’s very interesting to compare this skull with the composite reconstruction of the male A. afarensis that Tim White assembled in 1979 based on skull fragments from the A.L. 333 site. At the time there was some concern that he’d incorporated parts from more than one species, but this new skull shows that he was right on the money.

  • Jennie Torres

    My comments on Lucy the skeleton is iformational. On May 30, 2008, the entire 5th grade in school, P.S.# 34, in Jersey City,NJ, is going to do a play called “Dig It”, and my music teacher, “Mr. Fumento, chosed me to play As Lucy the skeleton. Today, were practicing for the big day because,this is the last time were going to be doing this play. P.S. time to come 9.30am, PARENT’S NIGHT 6.00pm

  • abby

    wow thjat amazing jk so boring just jkiddimng i love the book

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