Lucy, the australopithecus afarensis
Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis | 1997 assumed (based on copyright claims). Own work assumed (based on copyright claims) | CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia

Last Sunday, we visited an exhibit of Lucy, the hominid (human-like) ape that is the mother of us all, at the Museum of Natural History in Houston, Texas.

 

Who was Lucy?

 

Lucy was an early hominid discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia. She lived 3.2 million years ago and had the anatomical features of half human (the lower part of the body) and of an ape (the upper part). In a word, she represents the transition from ape to human.

I stood mesmerized in front of the bony remains that made up her tiny skeleton. Here was a 25-year-old female when she died, about 4 feet tall, weighing about 60 lbs. Older hominid fossils have been unearthed; other contenders challenge her central place on my, and your, family tree as a common ancestor of our genus, Homo. But Lucy, a de facto ambassador of her species, Australopithecus afarensis (in plain English “the Southern Ape of Afar”), remains a key reference point in the human fossil record, from a time when humanlike hips, not big brains, were the big evolutionary event.

As I stood there contemplating my diminutive grandmother, I sort of had a conversation with her. I decided to write her a letter:

Dear Gramma Lucy,

Here I am, your great great great great…..great grandchild, looking at you as if you were just another ancient skeleton. You know, I feel a much greater affinity to you than I ever felt to the Egyptian mummies I saw in the museums of Europe and Egypt. After all, they weren’t family; they weren’t even Jewish, God forbid. And here you are, diminutive like my great-grandmother, probably had as many kids at your age as she did, and probably loved them just as much. How do I know? By watching chimpanzee mothers lovingly feed and groom their children. I know you never heard about these apes (we call them chimps), but I’ve got to tell you—they are your grandchildren just like me. We, Homos (come on, gramma, I don’t mean that, I mean members of the genus Homo), and the genus Pan, the chimps, were born 200,000 years after you passed away in Ethiopia.

It is amazing how much I could tell you just by looking at your bones. I remember being taught that you “got off the trees” because climatic changes caused the trees to die off and the landscape became a Savannah. Nonsense. Your curved finger and toe bones tell me that you were still climbing trees. Yes, you also walked upright. I could tell that from the inward slant of your femur (sorry gramma, in your times, they called it thigh bone), which allowed you to carry weights over long distances while walking upright.

You know, another thing that was hotly debated is whether you could first walk upright, and you got off the trees simply because you could, or whether you first had to get smart in order to do it. Well, the answer, gramma, is in your bones. Your thighs and hips, and the length of your arms in comparison to your legs, tell me that you were bipedal (excuse the Latin; you walked on two legs). But your brain size gramma, please don’t take offense, leaves a lot to be desired. It is about 350cc, just like a chimp. But don’t let it get you down—you were lovely and loving just the same.

The thing that I really feel bad telling you about is how we Homo sapiens treated your descendant (and our cousin) the chimp Panus troglodytes. We hunted him, killed him, and, worst of all, decided that he is an inferior creature, an uncultured savage. Is that a way to treat a family relation, however distant? I have to break here for a moment, but I’ll be right back…

 

Do chimps have culture?

It all depends what you mean by “culture”. Biologists define it simply as “the transmission of behavior by nongenetic means”. Bare bones definition but it captures the essence of what is culture. For instance, Jane Goodall was one of the first scientists to rigorously draw a link between human and chimp behavior when she reported, in a 1964 Nature paper, the manufacture of twig tools used for termite foraging in Tanzanian chimpanzees. The 1970s reports by McGrew and Tutin described a curious hand-clasp performed during grooming bouts in one Tanzanian chimpanzee community. This behavior hadn’t been seen in Goodall’s chimps, although they lived only 100 miles away, and both communities belonged to the same subspecies, P. troglodytes schweinfurthii. At the time, this was the most robust evidence for an established chimpanzee behavior that seemed to be independent of ecological or genetic influences and transmitted socially through the population. Since then, literally hundreds of regionally varying behaviors have been described, such as nut cracking and using bunches of leaves as sponges to sop up water from tree hollows or as napkins to clean muddy feet.

Social scientists don’t accept such bare bones meaning for “culture”. University of Chicago anthropologist Russell Tuttle, for example, stresses symbolism as a defining aspect of culture. He suggests that chimpanzee behaviors, such as nut cracking, should not be called cultural until their inherent symbolism can be demonstrated. “If they were doing it because that rock and that nut and anvil represented something, then it would be culture.”

Oh yea? Did the learned anthropologist hear about psychological experiments with a tribe from the New Guinea lowland jungle that revealed an astonishing degree of concrete thinking, devoid of any symbolism? For them, a bird, for instance, did not evoke an association with “song” or color. It was always “food” or “no food”. Very basic. But no culture? Hardly.

To me, the introduction of other qualifiers, like symbolism, is meant to exclude, rather than accurately define. “University ABC is announcing the position of a tenure-track position in Biology. The applicant should have graduated from an Ivy League university between 1980 and 1981, published 150 papers on the subject of insect growth hormone, 14 of those in Science and Nature, and 2 in PNAS. The university is an equal opportunity employer.” You know that this ad is designed to exclude any and all applicants, except one.

 

Back to gramma

So you see gramma, in the last couple of thousands of years, we convinced ourselves that we were created by God, not by you, and that gave us the idea that we are unique and superior. We felt completely justified in regarding cousin chimp as inferior, something beneath us, something that we can dispossess from its habitat and even kill. Scientists nowadays still have trouble acknowledging that when it comes to biology, sharp demarcations hardly exist. We used to think that different species were sharply demarcated. Now we know that this is not exactly true; there are gradations; populations of the same species diverge because of geographical separation or some other reason and gradually grow apart to become distinct species. Likewise, there are gradations in cultural complexity. Our culture today is infinitely more complex than yours. But we know you had a culture; we found a group of about 30 skeletons from 3.5 million years ago near Lake Turkana. What were they doing together? They obviously were a community, a society. They hunted together, made tools together, cooked together, lived together, and communicated with each other. Maybe not with a language like ours but more like today’s chimps; but communicated nonetheless.

So gramma Lucy, thanks for showing up after so many years to remind us who we are, and where we came from.

Your loving great great great great… grandson.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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