An Autopsy 3.2 Million Years in the Making


Lucy is the most famous Australopithecus afarensis in the world. And certainly the only one with a Facebook page. Lucy’s fossil was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, and was a remarkable find because more than 40% of her skeleton was recovered.

University of Texas at Austin paleoanthropologist John Kappelman arranged with the Ethiopian government and museum authorities to CT scan Lucy in her entirety. The scans were completed in 2008 at UT Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. The CT scan – computed tomography –  created a complete and detailed digital archive of the famous fossil. The CT scans created a way for paleoanthropologists to “look inside” a fossil without destroying it. The incredible detail in the CT scans can show fractures that would be incredibly difficult to see with X-rays, let alone the naked eye. Finally, scanning Lucy opened up the possibility of sharing her digital self with a variety of audiences.

One result is that, based upon the extensive fracturing to the skeleton, scientists have a conclusion as to Lucy’s cause of death. This probably qualifies as a delayed autopsy.

In a paper published in Naturea team of paleoanthropologists led by John Kappelman have argued that Lucy died 3.2 million years ago by falling out of a tree. That conclusion has been met with skepticism among fellow researchers. Lucy’s death-by-tree-fall hypothesis has generated a furious debate within the scientific community of paleoanthropology.

Here you can see an illustration of what Lucy's fall would have been like. Write the authors in Nature, "We hypothesize that Lucy fell from a tall tree, landing feet-first and twisting to the right, with arrows indicating the sequence and types of fractures. " - Via Nature

Here you can see an illustration of what Lucy’s fall would have been like. Write the authors in Nature, “We hypothesize that Lucy fell from a tall tree, landing feet-first and twisting to the right, with arrows indicating the sequence and types of fractures. ” – Via Nature

But here’s what’s cool. The digital data has been open-sourced; it’s available for the viewing on the Web. It’s in keeping with a growing trend across paleoanthropology and other sciences to open up access to data. Kappelman’s group has published the CT scans of Lucy’s tibia, femur, humerus, and scapula—all the bones they analyzed in their study. Now, they invite colleagues, detractors, educators, and ardent fossil enthusiasts to download and print Lucy’s scans, encouraging audiences to “evaluate the hypothesis for themselves.”

This is a big deal. Historically – sorry for the lame pun – the scientists who have found the rarely discovered hominin fossils have acted as “gatekeepers” for access to their finds. Kappelman’s group has changed all that. Now it’s available to everyone. You can even request a file and have a file sent to you so you can print out a digitally precise three-dimensional copy of the fossil bone. All you need is your own three-D printer.

Paleoanthropology isn’t one of WC’s big interest areas, but can you imagine how much more interesting anthropology would have been if you’d been able to hold a digitally precise copy of Lucy’s femur in your hand? Of course, teaching paleoanthropology to high school students would make the heads of Christianist biblical literalists’ heads explode. Which, for WC, is a good thing.

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