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Ire of Lucy: Can The World’s Researchers Cooperate On Studying History’s Famed Biped?

Monday, September 23, 2013 at 4:22 PM

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If you're a fan of Australopithecus afarensis, then the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was the place to be this past weekend. Nearly 300 people - including 25 of the world's most prominent researchers of this distant human ancestor - gathered to learn the latest about "Lucy", one of the earliest known hominids to have walked upright on two feet. As ideastream's Brian Bull reports, the researchers also kicked off an effort towards better collaboration that in itself is a significant step...

Photo Gallery

Several of the 25 researchers at the CMNH consortium last week on Lucy (inset).  (Pic by Brian Bull) Visitors pose and snap shots of the latest reproduction of Lucy (pic by Brian Bull) William Kimbel, Dir of the Institute of Human Origins, ASU (pic by Brian Bull) Carol Ward, University of Missouri professor of pathology and anatomical sciences (pic by Brian Bull) Denis Su, a paleo-ecologist who wants to learn more about Lucy's environment (pic by Brian Bull)

The air was thick with anticipation last Friday. Fidgety scientists and other visitors waited outside the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s new Gallery of Human Evolution – craning their necks towards museum CEO Evalyn Gates—as she prepared to cut the ribbon on the exhibit. 

“Welcome!” smiled Gates, as the ribbon fell. 

The crowd surged in towards a small, hairy figure with a broad, flat face and soulful brown eyes, enclosed in a case with her skeletal double. 

“Lucy” – who lived 3.2 million years ago – resembled a Hollywood celebrity before the paparazzi.

Carol Ward is a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri.  She’s one of the researchers here for the 2-day consortium.  She says this newest reproduction of Lucy is “spectacular”. 

“And they’ve gotten the reconstruction up to where science is in terms of our understanding of what Lucy would’ve looked like.  And the fleshed out reconstruction is just…it’s just stunning, to see Lucy as a creature, you can look in her eyes, and it’s just a marvelous job.”

When Lucy was first discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, only 40 percent of her skeleton was recovered from the hot, barren landscape.  But since then, discoveries of other Australopithecus afarensis specimens have helped make this the most complete skeletal reproduction.

However, says Ward…

“We have not finished, we’re only beginning to understand Lucy.”

If Lucy herself is a puzzle made up of many intricate pieces strewn far and wide, so is the field of research surrounding her.  No one’s naming names, but the consensus is that collaboration and data sharing…haven’t exactly been strong suits for the Lucy crowd. 

“Paleo-anthropologists have had a bad reputation for infighting and disagreement, that has in my opinion, interfered with the progress in our science.”

Bill Kimbel is Director of the Institute of Human Origins, at Arizona State University. He says from the 70s all the way through the 90s, political and personal quarrels have impeded the study of Lucy, and human evolution. 

Only recently has there been a lowering of barriers.

“People are talking again, even collaborating across research groups.  That has lead to some real progress…so our field is maturing in this respect.”

Kimbel says the real work began after Friday’s public symposium. 

The next day, researchers held private talks aimed at creating the basis of a shared database. 

Among those hoping for greater collaboration is Denise Su.  She’s a paleo-ecologist who studies the environments Lucy lived in.  Her research has been mostly in Tanzania, but she’d like to learn what others have learned of Lucy’s surroundings in other parts of North Africa.

“It’s getting very difficult to work in isolation,” says Su. “And you need collaboration, you need data-sharing to really advance the science of human origins forward.  `Cause otherwise, we’re just looking at our own little patch.”

And it’s not just scientific understanding that should drive collaboration, argues Bernard Wood, Professor of Human Origins at George Washington University.  He says recent actions on Capitol Hill paint a Congress that’s working to limit scientific funding, particularly in controversial areas such as evolution. 

“That’s a great shame, and I think it actually means that the United States is actually put at a disadvantage compared to other countries, where this is not the case,” says Wood. “All the more reason to collaborate, because it’s clear that the amount of money is probably never going to get much larger.  So obviously you need to make the very best use of the money that there is.”

Every researcher I met at the Lucy consortium said they’re ready to open up their research files and specimen collections for the greater scientific benefit. 

A few even said that they’re happy to argue and quarrel over this chapter of human evolution...as long as the data sharing continues. 

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Arts and Culture, Archaeology, Natural History, Natural Sciences, Community/Human Interest, Education, Science, Technology

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