Did Lucy die from a fall?

New computer tomography scans give clues to how the famous 3.2 million-year-old fossil may have died.

Vocabulary: evolution, hominin, forensics, fossil, fossil evidence

NGSS: LS4.A: Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity, SEP4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data, and CC1: Patterns.Can be used to build towards MS-LS4–1 and MS-LS4–2.

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.1

A diagram that shows where Lucy’s bones were broken. Credit: John Kappelman, University of Texas at Austin

New research from the University of Texas-Austin speculates that Lucy, the famous 3.2 million-year-old fossil of an ancient human relative, may have died by falling out of a tree. Such a fate would be an ironic twist for a skeleton that’s been intensely studied for clues about how much time hominins capable of walking on two legs still spent climbing trees.

The evidence for Lucy’s demise? Computer tomography scans of the breakage patterns in her bones, which orthopedic surgeons have identified as similar to injuries sustained in a hard fall or car accident, and which UT anthropologist John Kappelman says Lucy must have suffered close to the time of death.

This finding is not supported by everyone in the paleoanthropological community, but it raises an interesting question: How much does looking at bones tell us about how our early relatives lived, or how we eventually evolved? John Hawks, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Tracy Kivell at the University of Kent, are two anthropologists trying to solve ancient mysteries with fossil evidence — such as skull size, finger structure, and even plants traces stuck in teeth.

They sound off on what potentially killed Lucy, and discuss how researchers are using new fossil finds — and turning new technology on old ones — to piece together the hominin family tree.

Audio Excerpt “Lucy’s Bones” Sept. 2, 2016. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.

Questions

  • What led the University of Texas-Austin research team to propose a new idea about the death of Lucy?
  • Based on the critique from John Hawks, what further research or data would you suggest the researchers at University of Texas-Austin do to confirm their idea that Lucy fell from a tree?
  • Hawks mentioned the idea that technological advances increase our need for evidence and documentation to support a discovery. What are the benefits and the drawbacks of this idea? Can you think of other situations where you’ve noticed this?
  • According to Tracy Kivell, why is hand structure important to the human evolution puzzle? What kind of clues can we see in that structure?

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