“Lucy” is the nickname for the Australopithecus afarensis partial skeleton that was discovered in the Afar desert of Ethiopia in 1974 by an international team of scientists led by former Museum curator Dr. Donald Johanson. When the partial skeleton was found, it was the oldest and most complete early human ancestor ever found, with 40 percent of the skeleton unearthed. Lucy has served as an important reference that has expanded researchers’ understanding of the morphology and anatomy of the earliest human ancestors and increased our knowledge of human evolution.
“While no longer the oldest human ancestor discovered or most complete fossil specimen, Lucy is nonetheless an icon of paleoanthropology,” said Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology. “Over the years, through research publications and the media, she was able to easily connect with people all over the world as an individual—not as a fossil specimen. “From a scientific point of view, she belongs to an early human ancestor species that existed right before the first appearance of Homo, the genus that includes humans,” he said. “As a result, her species is positioned at a very pivotal point in our quest to understand our origins.”
In September 2013, the Museum unveiled a new Human Origins Gallery featuring Lucy, the famous 3.2 million-year-old human ancestor showcased as a skeletal mount as well as a sculpted reconstruction. Museum artisans Carl Jara and Nicole Dobrinic sculpted skeletal elements, cast 102 pieces in resin and painstakingly reassembled the mount of the famous fossil. The mount reflects current scientific knowledge of the hominin’s anatomy based on fossil evidence.
It features a newly sculpted and reshaped rib cage handcrafted from foam and a spine that more accurately represents the curvature of the lower back. In addition, new elements were added, including casts of portions of the original fossil’s lower leg (tibia) and upper arm (humerus) that were not in the original reconstruction, a symmetrical left hand and a patella (knee cap) cast from the Museum’s Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection of human bones.
Sharing the spotlight with the new skeletal mount is a strikingly lifelike sculpture created by internationally renowned paleoartist John Gurche. This fully “fleshed-out” reconstruction details the muscular build and facial features of the upright walking human ancestor. Posed in a striding stance, the masterful creation is arranged back to back with the most accurate and complete skeletal cast of this species in the world, bringing this ancient creature to life in amazing detail.
The award-winning artist sculpted the work in clay from the Museum’s Lucy skeleton cast. The process began by articulating the Museum’s restorations of Lucy’s bones in a dynamic, confident striding pose. Gurche then used modeling clay to sculpt realistic muscles, based on muscle markings visible on Lucy’s bones. “Her skeleton is not identical to that of any creature alive today, ape or human, and her muscles follow suit,” said Gurche. “The result is a body all her own.”
Skin was added and texturized with tools and skin texture pads. Finally, Lucy was molded and cast in silicone. Finishing touches included painting the work and individually implanting natural-looking hair with a special needle. A hidden metal armature supports the completed reconstruction from within.
The two new representations of Lucy were created under the direction of Haile-Selassie. Skeletal reconstructions are always based on available fossil material. The previous skeletal reconstruction of Lucy was designed under the assumption that the earliest hominins had chimpanzee-like, funnel-shaped rib cages. The new reconstruction is based on new knowledge from specimens discovered in Ethiopia that indicate that Lucy had neither a funnel-shaped (ape-like) nor barrel-shaped (human-like) rib cage. The shape was intermediate between humans and apes. In addition, the previous reconstruction did not show lumbar lordosis, the curvature of the lower spine that characterizes hominins that walk on two legs.