Digital model of 3.2 mln-yr-old Lucy may shed new light on human evolution

February 7th, 2009 - 4:02 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Feb 7 (ANI): Scientists have come up with a new high-resolution CT scan of Lucy, a famous 3.2 million-year-old skeleton, which will provide scientists around the globe with information that may help settle debates about human evolution.

Lucys bones, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, represent the most complete remains of any adult human ancestor that walked on two feet.

According to a report in Wired Science, the virtual Lucy could prove invaluable to scientists by giving them their first glimpse inside her fossilized bones.

The scans reveal microscopic details of the internal structure of Lucys bones and teeth that give clues to how she moved and ate.

These scans will ensure that future generations are familiar with Lucy, and will know of Ethiopias central contribution to the study of human evolution. A virtual Lucy will be able to visit every classroom on the planet, said Jara Mariam, director general of Ethiopias Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

Several versions of the virtual Lucy will eventually be available to the public, according to paleoanthropologist John Kappelman of the University of Texas.

A website with a basic version will allow students to look at Lucy and compare her skeleton with those of modern humans and apes, while researchers will be able to access high-resolution files.

The prized fossil, currently on display at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, sparked a controversy in 2007 when it was shipped to the United States from Ethiopia, because of concerns that it could be damaged.

Now that Lucy has been digitally archived, scientists and students will be able to harmlessly examine the bones using tools available on the web.

Medical CAT scans like those done in hospitals show a cross-section of a patients body with 1-2 mm resolution. But because Lucy isnt a living patient, much higher-energy X-rays can be used.

The computed tomography, or CT, scans done on Lucy reveal internal details on the order of 5-50 microns less than the width of a human hair.

That level of detail could yield unprecedented insight into our ancestors.

Although there is little doubt that Lucys species, Australopithecus afarensis, walked on two feet, it is less clear whether she and her kin also spent much time in the trees.

Certain features of her skeleton, like curved fingers and toes, the orientation of the shoulder joint, and relatively long arms, suggest that they are evolutionary holdovers from tree-dwelling ancestors.

The question of whether Lucys species actually climbed trees or just inherited traits associated with tree-climbers is a long-standing debate among paleoanthropologists that the CT scans may help resolve. (ANI)

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