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A Giant Leap for Lucy

Perspective

on July 1, 2011
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In 1978 anthropologists discovered a set of human-like footprints in Tanzania, including a well-defined foot arch. Ever since then, evolutionists have been trying to link these prints to an extinct, apelike creature named Australopithecus. The problem is that nearly all the australopithecine fossils were found 1,000 miles (1600 km) away in Ethiopia, and until recently there was no clear evidence this creature had a high arch.

The discovery of a new foot bone for Lucy teaches us a valuable lesson—the less evidence available, the more interpretation is needed to make any conclusions.

Has the discovery of a new foot bone shed new light on how Lucy walked? (Lucy is the popular name for the most well-known australopithecine specimen.) A team of researchers thinks so. As Science journal stated it, the arch means Lucy could have donned “high heels or marched for miles.”1

Not all evolutionary scientists are in step with this claim, however. Will Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, notes that the new bone is from the outside of the foot (the fourth metatarsal, next to the little toe). But the inner foot is where the arch is most pronounced in humans. Also, the australopithecine toe is more curved than those of humans.

So this new find does not settle the question. As Harcourt-Smith explained, “It’s hard to envisage an animal that had entirely made the leap to full, obligate bipedalism [regular walking on two feet].”

As with many other high-profile creatures with no living survivors, a layer of interpretation lies between the original and the reconstruction. The less complete the fossil, the thicker the interpretation, as in Lucy’s case. Even if australopithecines sported an arched foot, it certainly does not mean they were our ancestors—or that they regularly walked upright. To reach that conclusion, the researchers had to take a giant leap, not just a small step, in logic.

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Footnotes

  1. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/02/lucy-had-a-spring-in-her-step.html

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