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Celebrating 50 years of Lucy with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Emma Finestone with Lucy at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Dr. Emma Finestone said, since Lucy was discovered in 1974, she's opened the door to numerous avenues of scientific research - much of it centered on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Lucy, a longtime draw at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, has been known in Cleveland for half a century. The Australopithecus afarensis was discovered in Ethiopia by a team from the museum in 1974. CMNH is kicking off a year-long celebration of her 50th year in the museum this week.

Scientists from Kent State University will discuss replica artifacts from the time Lucy lived, about 3.2 million years ago, at a Thursday celebration dubbed “Think & Drink with the Extinct: Get Groovy with Lucy.” Representatives from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will also be on hand, since Lucy's name derives from the Beatles' song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

“If you have ever been to a field site where you're cut off from the rest of the world, you play the same record albums, tapes, over and over and over,” said CMNH Associate Curator Dr. Emma Finestone. “I think that the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was being played by a member of the team on the night of the celebration after they'd first found Lucy. Someone suggested to name her Lucy, because they suspected that it was a female based on her size and some of the features of her pelvis and her anatomy.”

Of course, Lucy represents much more than rock trivia. She also opened the door to a new understanding of her species and kickstarted the Ethiopian government’s creation of an infrastructure for studying fossils.

“They built a paleo laboratory,” Finestone said. “They built casting labs that the Cleveland Museum of Natural History trained them on. Lucy was returned in 1980 and has remained at the National Museum of Ethiopia ever since."

Lucy is represented in Cleveland by replica fossils and a lifelike sculpture created by John Gurche.

“She's very short, because her species was shorter than ours,” Finestone said. “That actually really lends itself for connecting with children. She's about the same height as a lot of the children who visit. She's eye level with them, and her skeleton is about the same size.”

When unveiled in 2013, the statue was the centerpiece of the Human Origins Gallery, developed under the direction of Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, then the museum's curator of physical anthropology. Finestone credited him with furthering the research around Lucy and her ancestors.

“If you look at a tree of hominin evolution to pinpoint how many hominin species have a connection to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History… it's most of them that are older than 3 million years,” Finestone said. “Lucy got the ball rolling.”

She also altered the course of research. Finestone said, in the 1970s, studies usually focused on the roles of male individuals in human evolution.

“There was a lot of research focusing exclusively on hunting as a male activity, how important it was to eat meat,” she said. “I think a lot of those ideas were kind of overinflated in terms of their importance. An enormous part of human evolution is what females were doing... contributing a lot in terms of material culture. It's often the mothers who teach culture and technology to their children in chimpanzee groups."

In August, the museum presents a family day related to Lucy. In September, former CMNH Curator Dr. Donald Johanson will return for a fireside chat about his discovery of Lucy.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.