An Elaborate Story: Why Lucy’s Death Matters to Us

“LUCY WAS PUSHED!” someone shouted at me through the fibers of the internet. I had just shared the new Lucy study on Twitter, which I’m sure many of you have seen by now: the idea that Lucy–the famous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton–fell to her death 3.2 million years ago. My mother felt just as incredulous as the internet stranger, texting me to defend Lucy, asking “What do these researchers know?!?!” These responses show our attachment to Lucy, an attachment that begs the question of how could our beloved ancestor have fallen in such a manner, prematurely ending her life due to a simple accident?

I am less interested in the Lucy fall study than I am by the issues it raises (my dissertation advisor and others have weighed in on the study itself). A quote by quote Bernard Wood of George Washington University–who criticized the idea of Lucy’s fall for lack of evidence–nicely summed up why I find this interesting: “It’s an elaborate story,” he stated, but “it’s not science.” This caught my attention. I’m a historian, so I love stories. And this is a particularly interesting story–not just in its content, but in the way we are fascinated by it. We are captivated by this little hominin, she has become part of our culture in such a manner that make us want to defend her from accusations of clumsiness. The question is: Why do we care so much about Lucy’s death?

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Imagining Lucy’s Life

And we do care. My social media feed has been dominated by Lucy all week, and headlines about her fall have appeared in places that don’t usually cover fossil stories. This Lucy-mania truly illustrates the way this Australopith has been brought to life in the forty years since her discovery. Lucy’s skeleton is not just a disassociated collection of old dusty bones. She is not just a nameless, faceless human ancestor. Over 3 million years after her death, she has been brought back to life: painted as a creature who once lived, breathed, ate, probably feared predators, and maybe hung out in trees. She was almost-human in a way that grips our imagination. She walked upright like we do, she even has a “baby“–though in a completely metaphorical, abstract way (a young Australopith fossil was found not far from the Lucy site, but lived over 100,000 years before Lucy).

Lucy’s story has been powerful for some time. In a new book, Seven Skeletons, historian Lydia Pyne explores the various ways fossils like Lucy become famous, entangled in popular culture and imagination. It could be her name, or that fact that her skeleton is more complete than most fossilized human ancestors, or the fact that she has been painted, sculpted, and plastered on murals. Whatever it is–we relate to her.

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Lucy, from the Institute of Human Origins

I got to meet Lucy once. It was during her US tour, the same tour that brought her bones to Texas where they were scanned for this tree-fall study. I had seen casts of Lucy but this was different–this was her. While it was certainly an exciting moment for me, the real surprise was the way Lucy affected my twin sister, who I had dragged along. My sister had patiently tolerated my ramblings about paleoanthropology for years, but never understood my fascination with dusty old bones. That forever changed when she met Lucy. “Isn’t she beautiful?” I asked, and she agreed in a whisper, her eyes filling with tears. Maybe it was the careful construction of the exhibit, or the Beatles tune playing throughout the hall, but my sister seemed incredibly moved by seeing this ancestor in person.

Imagining Lucy’s Death

This story of Lucy’s fall makes her even more relatable. Scientists argue that Lucy fell out of a tree, sticking her hands out in front of her to stop herself, fracturing her upper arm near her shoulder in the process. Many of us have stuck our hands out to brace for a fall, and we can imagine Lucy’s fear in that moment. The lead researcher of this paper said, “I’ve taught about her for years, and up until the moment I pictured her death, she was just a box of bones to me.” But this story paints her as “a living individual,” he stated. Kappelman admitted that while he’s “not a philosopher” there is, for him “a beautiful juxtaposition that by understanding her death, I now feel that I understand her life.”

Kappelman’s sentiment of human ancestors as “just a box of bones” is a fairly common scientific response. Scientists are trained to focus rather narrowly on their research question: how does her pelvis suggest her manner of walking? What do her teeth reveal about her diet? Indeed, in the years I studied anthropology it never occurred to me to wonder how Lucy died. As Kappelman put it, it is not a scientist’s job to consider the broader philosophical issues–questions of the implications and meaning attached to the human past.

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Lucy reconstruction, photo by Jason Kuffer

But this is human evolution. Lucy is an ancestor of sorts, she has the power to tell us how we came to be here. The science of human origins is one where the two universes–the universe of focused research questions vs. the universe larger philosophical questions–converge (though it’s arguable that these realms are never truly separate). Lucy has the power to make many of us feel like philosophers, reflecting on our past and how we came to be here.

Lucy’s Afterlife

Lucy’s fall may turn out to be one of many chapters of Lucy’s story–though this chapter will certainly need further confirmation before it goes to print. But more chapters will be added over time, especially because now you can 3D print Lucy’s bones and examine her yourself. Lucy lives on. At a time when science feels under attack and research funding is short, I’m happy that fossils like Lucy can ignite a response, even if it’s just an accusation on Twitter or a text from Mom. Paleoanthropologists are working to unravel something that matters deeply to us: the human story. Our obsession with Lucy’s fall is a reminder that people are deeply invested in that story.

To me, the power this “elaborate story” holds over us is worth recognizing. How is it that we come to care so much about one upright walking ape? What does this say about science and culture? For more on this topic, check out Pyne’s new book on the afterlives of fossils. I would love to hear from you: Why do you think we are so interested in Lucy’s death? What about Lucy’s story resonates with you?

2 thoughts on “An Elaborate Story: Why Lucy’s Death Matters to Us

  1. Pingback: Bursting the Limits of What’s Possible: Best Paleoanthropology of 2016 | Paige Fossil History

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