Lucy's 40th 'Birthday': Looking Back On The Impact of The Australopithecus

Lucy Skeleton
Picture shows a reconstructed replica skeleton of what a more than 3-million-year-old female hominid known as "Lucy" might have looked like at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, August 7, 2007. Barry Malone/Reuters

It was November 24, 1974, around noon, and Donald Johanson, a 31-year-old associate professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, had just spotted an elbow in Ethiopia. "Oh my God," he thought as his eyes moved up the slope. One by one, he recognized a thigh bone, a skull and a piece of jaw that still had teeth in it. The scientist had just discovered a 3.2 million-year-old fossil who would come to be known as Lucy.

Lucy is quite small in stature, just shy of four feet tall and weighing in at only 64 pounds, with a small, ape-like skull, but she's got something special: the ability to walk upright like a human. The little skeleton, only 40 percent complete, is one of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. Lucy is Australopithecus afarensis. On November 24, she celebrated her 40th "birthday"—the day of her discovery by modern scientists.

Johanson is often asked if he considers Lucy a member of his family. "Yes, I do," he told Newsweek. "She's part of our family of humankind, too. She has allowed us to get rid of some of those dashed lines and draw solid lines between ancestors and descendents. My working hypothesis is that she was an ancestor only to Homo." One of his greatest scientific hopes is to find out if this hypothesis is true. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But it would be nice to know in the next few years for me. That is what I look most fervently for."

Johanson finds that everyone who encounters him wants to know what Lucy was like: What was her personality? Could she play? Did she think? Was she just like us? As much as he considers her a member of his family, Johanson knows she is further from modern Homo than many wish to believe. "She certainly didn't have language," he says. "Like all other animals, they certainly had calls, or barks, verbal communication, and visual communication, but I don't want to simply say this was the ape that stood up. But in some ways, it is better to consider her as the ape that stood up than as an early human." Lucy, who was probably 10 or 11 when she died, was likely a vegetarian, though she might have enjoyed eating eggs and termites as well. Like humans, she probably lived in a multiple-male and -female community and bonded with her mother.

Discovering Lucy has given Johanson an incredible career, and he thinks of her every single day. Lucy, unlike other scientific discoveries, has become a fixture in pop culture. She has a movie starring Scarlett Johansson named after her, and every year, school children of all ages learn about her (Johanson's mailbox is often stuffed with inquiries from kids hoping to explore Lucy's history).

"I think that Lucy has become so iconic, essentially an icon in the field of paleontology and human origins work. She was found at a time when human origins was really at a crossroads," Johanson explained. Before she was discovered, "any real evidence beyond anything older than 3 million years would fit into a bowl of pretzels." Lucy, instead, was almost half-complete. She took on a humanesque form. "She was an individual, not a piece of jaw to argue about. It was an association of a skull and limb bones. It was clearly not Homo. It was small-brained, about the size of a grapefruit, yet she was walking upright. She occupied a very interesting transitional stage between things that were much more ape-like, which we today call Ardi [Ardipithecus ramidus, another hominid specimen]. Here was something, an individual, that could be identified with."

Johanson credits Lucy's popularity not only with the timing, but also with her name. In Ethiopia, she is called Dinkinesh, meaning "you are marvelous." In the Western World, we know her just as Lucy, and at the time she was named, The Beatles had made the name a staple in popular culture. "We were listening to the Beatles tape. I was a huge Beatles fan, this was the heyday. I brought tapes with me to the field, we had a little tape recorder. That particular night, 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' was playing and we had just started discovering fragments of the skeleton," explained Johanson. "If she was called Geraldine, she might not have the popularity."

The visual impact of Lucy was also important to her rise in fame: She looked like a person. "At that time, it was the oldest, most complete skeleton of a human ancestor. People could visualize an individual when they looked at her. When you looked at the familiar picture of evolution out there, she's there, right in the middle. She was a person."

Johanson was very modest when asked about his own fame. "All of our countries are chauvinistic. The American press really focused to a large extent on how this was the first major human ancestor discovered by an American."

Since Lucy was discovered, Johanson has worked to train many new scientists on how to effectively dig for skeletons and bone fragments. Today, he credits the Ethiopian educational system with producing some of the most incredible scientists in the world. "The thing that has changed very importantly and appropriately is that it isn't just foreign scientists coming to African countries to work," he says. "We have now trained the institutes in country, we have trained scholars in country, who are running their own expeditions, choosing their own missions, funding their own missions, writing their own articles. This is very rewarding, very important. We have Ethiopian colleagues doing the work with us."

Years after her discovery, in 2007, Lucy went on tour. She took a trip around the United States, spending six years bouncing from museum to museum. The Ethiopian government commissioned the tour, and profited from a portion of the admission fees to see her. Scientists argued whether it was appropriate for her to travel, and some museums refused to take her in protest. Other museum specialists argued that being displayed is actually the safest thing for her— Lucy would be behind glass, with museum guards watching over her. Ultimately, though, the decision was made by the former prime minister of Ethiopia.

"They hired a group of museum specialists who had worked with things much more fragile than Lucy. When they prepared her to leave, they photographed every view of the specimens, weighed them, measured them, packed them in double Styrofoam. The only time she was touched was by an Ethiopian curator who took [the bones] out, put them on display, and put them back," explained Johanson. When she returned, there was not a chip or scratch on her.

When Lucy arrived back in Ethiopia in May of 2013, Johanson greeted her at the airport along with a formal motorcade. She has since retired, perhaps sadly, to a drawer at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. The worst part about it is that "not more people got to see her," Johanson mused, but he believes in the long term, she will be better off in the drawer. "She doesn't get out much," he joked. "But she is a scientifically important specimen. She is the prime antiquity of Ethiopia, she is their pride. These sorts of things can travel but ultimately, they are the purvey of science and should be protected for scientific work." Johanson gave the example of a fossil from 1856 which just 10 years ago was brought out of a drawer to have Neanderthal DNA extracted from within it.

Though she remains tucked out of sight, Johanson believes Lucy is a permanent fixture in popular science, and certainly in his mind. "Since that night, the 24th of November, when Lucy was christened, I suspect there has not been a day in my life that has not mentioned Lucy. She has become very much a part of my thought process every day. It is strange that 3.2 million years separates us but that one moment on the 24th was a moment of reanimation for her. She never knew that she would make such an impact."