Lucy's Baby

An extraordinary new human fossil renews debate over the evolution of upright walking

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Lucy skeleton reconstruction at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Andrew/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

The arid badlands of Ethiopia's remote Afar region have long been a favorite hunting ground for paleoanthropologists. Many hominins?--the group that includes all the creatures in the human line since it branched away from that of the chimps--once called it home. The area is perhaps best known for having yielded "Lucy," the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor known as Australopithecus afarensis. Now researchers have unveiled another incredible A. afarensis specimen from a site called Dikika, just four kilometers from where Lucy turned up. But unlike Lucy, who was well into adulthood by the time she died, the new fossil is that of an infant, one who lived 3.3 million years ago (and yet has nonetheless been dubbed "Lucy's baby").

No other hominin skeleton of such antiquity--including Lucy--is as complete as this one. Moreover, as the earliest juvenile hominin ever found, the Dikika child provides an unprecedented opportunity to study growth processes in our ancient relatives. "If Lucy was the greatest fossil discovery of the 20th century," says Donald C. Johanson of Arizona State University, who unearthed the famed fossil in 1974, "then this baby is the greatest find of the 21st thus far."

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