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Science Ink #7 - "Lucy"

ByCarl ZimmerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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As we learn about Bruce Jackson’s work tracing people’s roots, it feels like an appropriate time to explore a tattoo that gets to the heart of all of our roots. And besides which, we can’t help but love Lucy.

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“Here she is in all her 3.2 million year old glory,” he [James Chapel] says.

In 1974, a team of scientists digging in a remote corner of Ethiopia discovered the skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis . They nicknamed her Lucy, after the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which they had been listening to.

Lucy was far older than any hominin fossil found up until then, which made the fact that forty percent of her skeleton was still intact all the more remarkable. Instead of an isolated tooth or toe, the researchers could analyze a sizeable chunk of her body. Subsequent expeditions have discovered even more A. afarensis bones.

Lucy had legs and feet suited for walking on the ground, albeit slowly and inefficiently. She still had long hooked hands, which may have been useful for leaping into trees to escape leopards. And her brain was still tiny, measuring a third our own. In Lucy, we see how our ancestors stood upright long before they had our mental fire power.

For decades, Lucy stood at the outer edge of our understanding of human evolution. But in the 1990s, paleoanthropologists found several fossils of hominins that date back as far as 6.5 million years. Now Lucy stands midway along the journey from our common ancestor with chimpanzees to the six billion people on Earth today, a small, shuffling two-legged ape.

Check out more tattoos in “Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed” by Carl Zimmer.