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[Op-Ed] Lucy

Posted May. 05, 2009 06:15,   


American anthropologist Donald Johanson on Nov. 24, 1974, discovered a half-broken skull and a pelvic bone while working on an excavation site in Hadar, Ethiopia. By the look of the pelvis, the bones were believed to have been those of a primitive female. Johanson named the owner of the bones “Lucy” because he was listening to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when he discovered them. The primitive being was Australopithecus afarensis, which is believed to have appeared 3.2 million years ago.

In 2004, scientists announced that they discovered a diamond star about one-eighth the size of Earth 50 light years away. The star was a white dwarf, a dying star which turned into a diamond because its carbon became crystallized by the star’s high temperature and pressure caused by heavy gravity. The scientists also named the diamond “Lucy.” Because of the Beatles song, the fossilized bones and the star shared the same name.

The fossils provided a clue to the origin of humans. Standing about a meter tall, Lucy resembled an ape with her jaw jutting forward in her lower facial features. Her forehead receded backwards but had a larger brain capacity than an ape’s. She could also go up trees just as monkeys and was able to walk on two feet.

In 1871, Charles Darwin said in his book “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” that Africa was the birthplace of mankind. Lucy’s discovery triggered a heated debate over whether her species was the “missing link” between chimpanzees and humans today.

The discoverer of the bones has come to Korea to attend the World Civic Forum co-hosted by Kyung Hee University and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In a lecture at the university in Seoul, Johanson, 66, said discoveries of fossils older than Lucy have lessened the chance of her being the direct ancestor of humans, but her existence is certainly important in the study of human evolution.

Darwin’s theory of evolution has unraveled many biological mysteries but has not provided sufficient answers to the origin of homo sapiens. So the question is if a second or third Lucy discovery is needed to solve the mysteries of human evolution by borrowing the imagination of paleoanthropologists.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)