3D Printings Solves the Cold Case of Lucy

Have you ever heard of the ‘mother of mankind’ Lucy? She or at least her remains are one of the oldest and best-preserved fossils of the ancestors of modern man. There are many hypotheses of how she really died. 3D printing technology now made it possible to finally solve the cold case of Lucy’s death and opens up new perspectives in the study of fossils.

lucy-tim-evanson

Have you ever heard of the ‘mother of mankind’ Lucy? She or at least her remains are one of the oldest and best-preserved fossils of the ancestors of modern man. There are many hypotheses of how she really died. 3D printing technology now made it possible to finally solve the cold case of Lucy’s death and opens up new perspectives in the study of fossils.

Lucy is an adult female specimen of Australopithecus afarensis who lived around 3.18 million years ago in Ethiopia. Paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson from Arizona State University in Tempe discovered her bones during a excavation in Africa in 1974. What is so special about Lucy is that the scientists found 40 percent of her skeleton, which makes it the most complete fossil ever found. Usually, only fragments or skulls are found. She weighed around 29 kg, was 1.1 m tall and had a similar anatomy to that of a modern human, which enabled her to even walk on two feet.

In 2008 the hominid’s fossils toured the US and also stopped at the University of Texas where the researchers around anthropology and geological sciences Professor John Kappelman had the chance to create high-resolution 3D scans of her remains. A special scanner with a resolution even higher than that of a medical CT scanned the bones and created more than 35,000 CT slices of Lucy’s skeleton.

The scientists then 3D printed Lucy’s bones in order to examine them better and get a clearer vision of how she died. This was crucial in the forthcoming of the process, says Kappelman: “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.”

With the help of the 3D-printed fossils, they finally found fractures that lead to the conclusion that Lucy must have died from injuries she suffered caused by a fall from a tree. According to Kappelman her fractures “result[ed] when the hand hits the ground during a fall, impacting the elements of the shoulder against one another to create a unique signature on the humerus.” Thus the hominid probably fell from a height of more than 40 feet and hit the ground with a speed at around 35 miles per hour.

Even though these findings are quite spectacular, the controversy around her death is not settled yet. As some researchers already disagree with the findings there has to be done a lot of research in the future to finally close her case (if possible at all). But still, the examination of Lucy’s remains will move forward due to the fact that the high-resolution 3D printable files have been released for the public just recently. Anyone who is interested in studying her bones can download the files for free at eLucy.org and print their very own replicas of the mother of mankind’s bones.

If you’re interested in Lucy’s case have a look at this video in which John Kappelman describes the process in detail.

Cover picture: Tim Evanson – Source: flickr