How Did Lucy Really Die? Discussion Heats Up as Researchers Worldwide 3D Print Her Bones

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images (4)I find the story of Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974, to be utterly fascinating, as does most of the rest of the world. It would seem that many of us imagine her as a spunky precursor to humans as we know them now, perhaps losing her life eventually as she ventured far too high in the trees. Can you imagine the elation scientists experienced as they happened upon one bone after another, eventually recovering nearly half of her little body? Not only that, just try to imagine that this hominin was walking the Earth—the same one you and I do—over three million years ago. It’s nearly unfathomable to try and imagine what Earth was like (without you or me on it) a few thousand years ago, not to mention millions.


From the researchers’ paper, published recently in nature.

In the past decades as we’ve all learned more about Lucy, technology has continued to progress at an accelerated rate, meaning that today we can have a greater understanding regarding many fossils as scientists are able to present—and share—more. And whether they plan on sharing a lot or not these days, as we’ve reported on previously in cases like that of the Homo naledi discovery, the age of democratization is upon us. The ability to share is there, and many scientists—and private citizens—are completely on board with the idea.

3D technology plays a major role in this democratization, as fossils can be scanned and cataloged and then 3D printed and studied extensively without the originals present. And as is the case with Lucy currently, some of the files are now being released for 3D printing. Not only is this for the informational factor, but scientists are hoping to continue the educated debate on how exactly Lucy did die. Some think indeed she fell out of a tree, broke her fall with her arms, and then died from multiple injuries and damage to organs. Others theorize the bones that were found broken were damaged after her death.

Lucy’s arm, knee, and shoulder bone files have been released, along with the paper, ‘Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree,’ by John Kappelman, Richard A. Ketcham, Stephen Pearce, Lawrence Todd, Wiley Akins, Matthew W. Colbert, Mulugeta Feseha, Jessica A. Maisano, and Adrienne Witzel. Published recently in nature, this paper outlines thoughts on Lucy’s death, offering a somewhat controversial theory as researchers have debated how much time our early ancestors actually spent in trees.

“Here we propose, on the basis of close study of her skeleton, that her cause of death was a vertical deceleration event or impact following a fall from considerable height that produced compressive and hinge (greenstick) fractures in multiple skeletal elements,” state the researchers in their paper. “Impacts that are so severe as to cause concomitant fractures usually also damage internal organs; together, these injuries are hypothesized to have caused her death.”

The prints were made at the University of Texas at Austin and have now been released to other researchers. Soon, they will be made available to the public as well so that everyone can get in on offering up their thoughts.

“Lucy has been at the center of a vigorous debate about the role, if any, of arboreal locomotion in early human evolution. It is therefore ironic that her death can be attributed to injuries resulting from a fall, probably out of a tall tree, thus offering unusual evidence for the presence of arborealism in this species,” stated the researchers in their paper.

Lucy's bones are being scanned (photo: Marsha Miller / UT Austin).

Lucy’s bones are being scanned [Photo: Marsha Miller / UT Austin]

Team leader John Kappelman discussed his thoughts on the differences between writing about Lucy, and actually seeing the bones in front of him:

 “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,” says Kappelman, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Having received permission from both the country of Ethiopia and the National Museum of Ethiopia shows an incredible amount of international progress in sharing information such as Lucy’s bones. Kappelman sees this as a good sign in terms of what is to come in the future from other countries and museums. He also hopes that Ethiopia will soon agree to share the rest of Lucy for release in 3D files.

 “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.

The University of Texas researcher does worry however, that while the sharing of information is positive, it could strain the income and budgets of small museums in Africa that are already struggling, focused really only on monies incoming from those who visit their fossil collections to stay afloat.

There are already several repositories available for printing similar files though, as we’ve reported previously, like companies such as MorphoSource that have released fossil files. Dr. Louise Leakey also heads, which is worth checking out whether or not you have any intentions of printing a file, offering fascinating and thorough data regarding hominin fossils, and more. She weighed in on the latest on Lucy and Ethiopia’s cooperation:

 “Coming from Ethiopia, it really is a positive step, because other countries that are hesitant may be willing to do the same thing,” says Dr. Leakey, a palaeontologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

Kappelman suggests that a good way to maintain this new system would be to offer free low-quality models, but to charge for higher-quality ones. Museums then have a new stream of income from the same source: their fossils. Leakey does not concur, as she sees democratization in her field, as going all the way.

“The days of keeping this content squirrelled away are gone,” she says. “Once you make a 3D model available, to control it is impossible.”

Certainly none of this has happened overnight, as Kappelman and his team have been working with Lucy’s remains since 2008 when they were able to 3D scan all of her fossils (amounting to 40% of her body). While he and his research team seem to concur that she fell from a tree, other researchers think she may have expired due to other causes, and undoubtedly, with the release of these files, the discussion will continue further. It’s certainly difficult to pinpoint what happened to a small female body 3.2 million years ago, but with 3D technology, the information afforded to us now is both startling, and stunning. Check out the video below to find out more about how Lucy’s bones are 3D printed and what researchers can learn from them. Discuss further in the 3D Printed Lucy Bones forum over at

[Source: nature]

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