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Planet Earth

Ludwig in the Sky With Diamonds

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Was our famous australopithecine ancestor Lucy really a man? After anthropologists excavated her 3-million-year-old skeleton in Ethiopia in 1974--and named her for a Beatles song playing at the site on the discovery day--they soon became convinced it was female. Why? Lucy is small compared with other specimens of Australopithecus afarensis found at the same site. But a pair of paleoanthropologists from the University of Zurich have now called Lucy’s femininity into question. Martin Häusler and Peter Schmid compared casts of Lucy’s reconstructed pelvis (center) with a modern woman’s pelvis (bottom) and the cast of another australopithecine specimen from South Africa (top). At least 13 of Lucy’s features--most notably the promontorium, a ridge at the rear of the pelvis that makes it heart shaped--say male. The researchers also found that an australopithecine baby’s head probably could not have fit through Lucy’s pelvic opening, as shown here. (The skulls in the two nonhuman pelvises are human baby skulls scaled down to the likely size of an australopithecine baby’s head, of which no fossils exist.) So Lucy may have been male--or a member of an entirely different species. Should her name be changed? Häusler and Schmid suggest Lucifer as an alternative. Or maybe Ludwig, says Schmid. But that’s too German.

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