From Lucy to the Iceman

Some of the more famous individuals of the archaeological world are taking centre stage once again as various news stories break this week.

Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old member of the Australopithecus afarensis species discovered in 1974 by Don Johanson and his student Tom Gray, is proving to be an enduring ambassador for human evolutionary studies. Whilst she no longer holds the title of the oldest known hominid, she is still of great interest to many. As the Houston & Texas News observes:

Before Lucy, many paleoanthropologists — the scientists who sort out the many-branched tree of human origins — believed the first real humanlike attribute to emerge among apes was a larger brain size. Lucy — who stood 3 feet, 8 inches tall, clearly walked upright and had a small cranium — quashed that argument.

At 3.2 million years old, Lucy and her species now represent something of a midpoint in the evolutionary timeline of humans, which began 5 million to 7 million years ago when chimpanzees — humanity’s closest living relative — and Homo sapiens last shared an ancestor in Africa.

However, the decision to allow Lucy to travel from her home in Ethiopia to the United States has not been without controversy. Curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout of the Houston Museum of Natural Science has been criticised for taking Lucy out of Ethiopia saying the fragile skeleton may be damaged irreparably during the journey to what is expected to be a very profitable show for the museum. The Washington Post quotes Richard Leakey as suggesting that “the museum was prostituting Lucy”, and Van Tuerenhout’s credentials have apparently been called in to question.

Regardless of which side you fall in the debate about the rights and wrongs of the journey Lucy is making, I believe none will doubt the pull that Lucy provides. As of Tuesday, 3,500 advance tickets are understood to have been sold for an exhibition that is at the very least getting people talking.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, researchers have been debating the cause of death of the 5,000 year old Iceman. Previously an arrow has been believed to be the reason for his demise. However, that has now been called in to question. According to the International Herald Tribune:

Just two months ago, researchers in Switzerland published an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science saying the mummy — also known as Oetzi — had died after the arrow tore a hole in an artery beneath his left collarbone, leading to massive loss of blood, shock and heart attack.

But radiologists, pathologists and other researchers, using new forensic information and CAT scans, said Tuesday they believed that the blood loss from the arrow wound only made Oetzi lose consciousness. They believe he died either by hitting his head on a rock when he passed out or because his aggressor attacked him again with a blow to the head.

The researchers believe the Iceman fell over backward, but was then turned over onto his stomach by his aggressor who then pulled out the arrow shaft while leaving the arrowhead embedded in Oetzi’s shoulder.


Berger, E. 2007. Lucy’s fame endures beyond scientific value. Houston & Texas News.

Rhor, M. 2007. Lucy makes curator target of criticism. Washington Post.

2007. Researchers say Italy’s 5,000-year-old Iceman died from head trauma, not arrow. International Herald Tribune.


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