Print your own 3D Lucy parts to work out how the famous hominid died

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Kappelman believes 3D printouts of Lucy's skeleton will help other researchers test his theory that the breaks are consistent with a fall(Credit: Photo by Marsha Miller, UT Austin.)

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Now you can have your very own 3D printout of some of the bones of Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis, who is, let's face it, the Beyoncé of fossils. Lucy, a very early human ancestor discovered in 1974, has long been at the centre of a fierce debate about whether our ancestors ever lived in trees. Open-source scans of the 3.18 million-year-old hominid's arm, shoulder and knee bones are now available to accompany a paper that hypothesizes that Lucy died falling from a tree.

The team behind the paper, which has been published in the journal Nature, are eager for other researchers to test their hypothesis that the bones reveal fractures consistent with a fall from a height of over 10 m (33 ft). The end of Lucy's upper right arm that was connected to her shoulder was found with a series of clean breaks and compressions that seem similar to the injuries orthopedic surgeons often see in people who attempt to break a fall with an outstretched arm. Damage to her pelvis, left shoulder, knee and right ankle are also consistent with the poignant idea that she died after a fall from a great height.

"When the extent of Lucy's multiple injuries first came into focus, her image popped into my mind's eye, and I felt a jump of empathy across time and space," says John Kappelman, leader of the University of Texas research team behind the new paper. "Lucy was no longer simply a box of bones but in death became a real individual: a small, broken body lying helpless at the bottom of a tree."

For the last forty years, the debate has continued over whether Lucy held onto adaptations that helped her ancestors cope with arboreal life. The team behind the paper proposes that Lucy and her species would have slept in trees to avoid predators, but were not as well-adapted to tree life as their more apelike ancestors.

Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe who found Lucy in 1974, still stands by his initial hypothesis that the bones were broken after she died. He says there were similar broken bones in other remains also found nearby.

John Kappelman is keen for others to test his team's theory that the breaks are consistent with a fall of around 10 meters. That's why digital models of portions of Lucy's left knee and right shoulder and arm are now available at eLucy.org after completing a survey indicating your interest in the material.

"It's one thing for me to describe it in detail in paper, but it's another thing to hold these things, to be able to print them out, look at them and put them together," he says.

Kappelman's team received approval from the government of Ethiopia and National Museum of Ethiopia to make the models of Lucy public.

"My sense from the Ethiopians is that Lucy is not only their national treasure, but they see her as a treasure for humankind," says Kappelman. He says he hopes Ethiopia will soon release digital scans of the rest of Lucy and that other countries will follow suit with other hominid fossils.

At the same time, he acknowledges that this could threaten the small income that cash-strapped museums – many of them in Africa – make from allowing scientists to make casts of their fossil collections.

"What has to be done is to put together a good business model that allows these museums to be able to have some sort of revenue stream off of these data," he says.

The following video features an interview with Kappleman and other team members and details the research process.

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