Lucy, one of the few specimens of the early hominid species Australopithecus afarensis, died about 3.18 million years ago in what would eventually become Ethiopia, where her well-preserved fossil was found in 1974.
It was one of the oldest and most complete early hominin fossils ever discovered in human history, and the Beatles-inspired researchers named her after the song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds". However, what caused her death remains a mystery.
John Kappelman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, examined Lucy’s skeleton and revealed fractures. According to the professor, 3D scans have revealed multiple broken bones; the breaks occur at pressure points where bones of living organisms often fracture when subject to stress.
Lucy’s skeleton had breaks in the left shoulder, right arm, left knee and right ankle.
In addition, these fractures did not heal at the time, and Kappelman’s team concluded that these were the injuries that caused Lucy’s death.
According to Kappelman, these breakages point towards a fall from great heights, presumably a tree.
In addition, Lucy’s broken right shoulder has some distinctive compression fractures, which might have been a result of her landing on her arms after falling from a great height.
“I showed the evidence to an orthopedic surgeon, who immediately said it is a fracture caused by a fall from a considerable height — there was no question at all,” explained Kappelman. “I have now had nine surgeons look at this who all agree.”
Kappelman’s team believes that the ancient pre-human creatures were only one meter in height and weighed approximately 27 kilograms, and that they were likely to have rested in trees at night to secure themselves from predators.
If Kappelman’s calculations are correct, Lucy climbed up a 14 meter tree (equivalent to the height of a five story building). When she fell, she would have hit the ground at 60 kilometers per hour; this is likely to have proven fatal.
According to David Pilbeam, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University, the researchers at University of Texas have “come up with the most plausible explanation for the breakage — mainly a fall from considerable height onto a very solid surface.”