UT researchers crack 3.18 million year-old case: How did Lucy die?

Lucy, the most famous human ancestor, appears to have died after falling from a tree. She was a member of the Australopithecus Afarensis family, very similar to chimpanzees, but a little more human like.

“We think she was reaching out trying to break her fall as she impacted the ground."

After several high resolution X-Rays at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, Professor John Kappelman and his team discovered much more about the life and death of Lucy. It was a combination of skeletal fractures and internal organ damage that killed her instantly.

“The body rapidly decelerates when it hits the ground,” Kappelman said.

Lucy is one of the most complete adult skeletons from her time. A team from Arizona State University  found her in 1974 in the Afar region of Ethiopia, an area Kappelman says is flat.

“The stream that she was found in only deposited thin amounts of sediments, usually small streams with short thin banks deposit short sediments. So we don't think there was any vertical relief on the ground,” said Kappelman.

This, among other reasons, leads him to believe trees were aplenty, and Lucy often slept in them.

“There are predators around, and going up to the trees at night to nest is one of the reasons chimpanzees do it,” said Kappelman.

This research brings a whole new light to Lucy.

“What struck me with it was the feeling of empathy I have for someone who fell, put her arms out probably as her last conscious act as an attempt to save herself,” said Kappelman.

At the small size of about 3 feet 6 inches tall and just 60 pounds, Lucy still leaves a big impression on the human race, 3.18 million years later.

“Inanimate bones all of a sudden came to life for me. So understanding her death brought her back to life,” said Kappelman.

Kappelman found similar breaks along her other shoulder and in her skull area. Lucy was 15 years old when she died.

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