Lucy had a small brain, tiny bones, and wasn’t even four feet tall. But Lucy, the australopith, was a survivor.
Many years ago, I read of a discovery that set my mind on fire. An American paleoanthropologist named Donald Johanson had discovered the bones of a woman who lived almost 3.2 million years ago, making her our earliest known ancestor. The scientific community was equally excited by the find because it proved that people walked upright long before they evolved the large brains characteristic of modern humans. This was a big deal because the most famous researchers of human evolution, Louis and Mary Leakey, believed that we had developed our modern brains before we walked upright. But Lucy, as the new fossil was named, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the opposite was true.
I was certainly interested in our evolution for purely intellectual reasons, but to me a more intriguing question was how Lucy and her kind (Australopithecus afarensis) had survived. Lucy shared her terrain with hyenas, false sabertooths, and scimitar cats—just a few of the creatures that might have meant her harm. And predators weren’t the only hazard.
In May 1978, almost four years after Johanson discovered Lucy, some of Mary Leakey’s grad students made one of the most remarkable discoveries in history: a trail of footprints created by another group of australopiths at a place called Laetoli, in Tanzania, nearly 3.6 million years ago. Continue reading this article >>