This Day In History: November 24

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On November 24, 1974, the fossils of an early human ancestor are discovered in northeastern Ethiopia. Soon nicknamed "Lucy," the remains showed that human species were walking upright over three millions years ago. 

The groundbreaking discovery was made by anthropology professor Donald Johanson and his research assistant Tom Gray at the Hadar paleontological site in northeastern Ethiopia. Johanson was already optimistic about the chances of finding bones from the hominin group—the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and their immediate ancestors—after discovering a knee joint the previous year at Hadar. While out mapping and surveying for fossils among the site’s 3.2 million year old sediments, Johanson and Gray discovered a hominin forearm bone—a discovery which would lead to the excavation of several hundred fragments of bone over two weeks, making up 40 percent of a single hominin skeleton. This freshly uncovered fossil earned the name Lucy later that night, inspired by the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which Johanson’s team played on repeat as they drank, danced and sang in celebration of their finding.

All hominins are defined in part by bipedal locomotion, or walking upright, and Lucy was no different. Her distal femur was angled such that she could balance on one leg at a time while walking; her knee joints were large enough to handle the added weight of standing on two limbs instead of four; her spine curvature could facilitate a permanent upright stance. Some mysteries of Lucy’s life remain unsolved: in 2016, a team of scientists claimed that Lucy may have used her strong arms to spend lots of time climbing trees and navigating canopies, a conclusion that Johanson himself has pushed back on.

In the years following Lucy’s discovery, at least thirteen more hominin individuals were found at Hadar and dubbed the “First Family.” Lucy, it turned out, was part of a previously unknown species of hominin: Australopithecus afarensis.

Lucy’s fossil is currently housed alongside other early hominin fossils at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, following a five-year tour in the United States. Her Ethiopian name, Dinkinesh, translates to “you are marvelous.”