This week’s “sciencey” tourism picture comes from the “Museum of Man” in San Diego — it’s a reconstruction of the Australopithecine “Lucy” (as usual, click on the picture to get to its Flickr page):
The original Lucy lived some 3.2 million (10^6) years ago, in what is now Ethiopia — but she was discovered (re-discovered?) by the Anthropologist Donald Johanson in 1974.
Lucy has been categorized in the species Australopithecus afarensis — at the time of her discovery, thought to be the last common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees. Subsequent work (in both the fossil and genetic analysis realms) has since pushed this split a few million years earlier, though, so the chimps can’t claim her any more.
At the time of her discovery, Lucy provided a shock to the then-established theories for human descent. It had been thought that human ancestors developed a large brain before any other human-like features, so researchers were expecting to find some human ancestor with a large brain but ape-like body. Imagine their surprise to find Lucy — with a chimp-like small brain, but a number of nearly-human features elsewhere in her anatomy. In particular, Lucy’s hip and knee joints show that she could have walked upright much if not all of her days, although the anatomy of her hands, feet, and shoulders would indicate she could still handle herself well in the trees.
You’ll find reconstructions of Lucy in whole or skeletal form in any number of museums, but since the mid 1980’s, her bones have been at rest back in Ethiopia. Recently, though, she’s hit the road as part of a six-year tour of museums in the U.S. Given the significance of her fossilized bones, this has not been without its share of controversy. Concerns about the possibility of damage had to be weighed against the fact that Lucy is as close as the fossil world gets to having a bona fide “rock star” (no pun intended). It’s hoped that her tour of the U.S. will help raise awareness of human-origins studies, as well as some well-needed funds for modernizing Ethiopia’s museums.