Fifty years since Lucy’s discovery: Advances in scientific knowledge on human origins and the development of African paleosciences

Session Date: 
Apr 6, 2024

One of the most important and iconic fossil discoveries in the history of paleoanthropology is the 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton nicknamed Lucy. Found in the Afar desert of Ethiopia in 1974, at a site called Hadar, Lucy’s discovery not only transformed the way paleoanthropologists thought about the earlier phases of human evolution, but also ignited significant interest in the survey and exploration of new fossiliferous areas in the Afar region of Ethiopia, the Turkana Basin in Kenya, and several sites in Tanzania and elsewhere in eastern Africa. This search has now resulted in the recovery of fossils that have pushed the record of human origins to more than six million years ago. The discovery of Lucy and her relatives at Hadar was also what clearly signaled the need for building laboratories and other research and storage facilities in the countries where the fossils were being found. This led to the establishment of paleontology laboratories in some countries like Ethiopia and, much later, the training of African scientists abroad. At Lucy’s 50th anniversary, we can celebrate the advances made not only in scientific knowledge of human evolution, but also in the building of African research infrastructure and training of local scholars. At the same time, it is necessary for us to reflect on how much further we must still go to help African paleosciences develop in a meaningful way and truly advance human origin sciences.