February 7, 2009

‘Lucy’ Gets Scanned

Digital X-rays of Lucy, the skeletal remains of a human who lived 3.2 million years ago, could provide answers about how our ancestors began walking, said scientists at the University of Texas in Austin on Friday.

Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, is the best-preserved example of the pre-human species Australopithecus.  Scientists hope that examining a "virtual" Lucy might provide clues about her lifestyle.

The researchers, who collaborated with the Ethiopian government, obtained the first-ever high-resolution computed tomography, or CT, scan of Lucy.

"These scans we've completed at the University of Texas permit us to look at the internal architecture -- how her bones are built," anthropology professor John Kappelman, told Reuters.

Kappelman helped lead the efforts, scanning all 80 pieces of the 3-foot-tall skeleton, which is roughly 40 percent complete.

"It opens it up to people who, instead of having to travel to some distant museum to see the original, can actually call it up on the desktop," Kappelman told Reuters.

The scans could the way in which Lucy's bones fit together, revealing whether she climbed trees in addition to walking.

"We're quite certain this set of studies we're going to be conducting here with the CT data are going to go some distance to resolving this long-standing question," Kappelman added.

Lucy's fossil is in the U.S. as part of a world premiere exhibit put together by the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

"It's going to help us fill us in what was one of the earlier stages ... of our evolution to really better understand the behaviors of an extinct cousin. In some ways it's like ... being able to tune the time machine back to 3 million years ago, jump in and pop back and be able to reconstruct what this fossil was doing on a day-to-day basis," said Kappelman.

"She's arguably now and I think will be for a long time, the most famous fossil on planet Earth," he said.


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