Could pre-hominids speak? ‘Lucy’s baby’ says ‘maybe’ and ‘sort of’


Hello everyone,

When scientists announced a few weeks ago that the common ancestor tongue of many European and Indian languages was first spoken in the area that is now Turkey rather than near the Baltic Sea, many people asked whether I and my cohorts could speak.

That’s a complicated question. To paraphrase a former president who gave an amazing speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, it depends what you mean by “speak.” (Or on what is is).

Did we have a complete language with syntax, grammar and parts of speech?  Probably not, if I understand those terms correctly. Could we communicate with different sounds and tones, much like birds could? Yes, most likely we could.

De­scribed as the skull of an Aus­tra­lo­pi­the­cus afa­ren­sis ba­by, this meas­ures about 12 cm (5 inches) from the bot­tom of the chin to the top of the head ver­ti­cal­ly. (Cour­te­sy Ze­re­se­nay Al­em­seged; © Au­tho­r­i­ty for Re­search and Con­ser­va­tion of Cul­tur­al He­r­i­ta­ges).

I say most likely because I don’t clearly remember just how we did it. Do you know how your feet bend and arch to enable you to walk? Probably not, unless you’ve studied anatomy and physiology. In the same way, with my simpler brain and fewer reasons to speak, I paid little attention to it.

But based on what your scientists have discovered, by the time I came along, some form of primitive communication through voice was possible. This information comes from archeological discoveries that some have dubbed “Lucy’s Baby.” She was not my child, but a toddler who lived about a 100,000 years before I did, and whose bones suggest she might be asking for donuts for breakfast if she was alive today.

Called the Dikika child, probably about 3 years old, she was found in Ethiopia, close to my home, and her skeleton was more complete than mine, with many interesting bones that told scientists about her life. Like mine, Dikika’s bones were protected by the sand of the Awash River, and found not far from my home of Hadar.

The bones of one of our older ancestors, Ardi, who lived 4.4 million years ago, were also protected by the Awash. Her bones were found in 2009, 45 miles away. She was taller and heavier than I was, and walked upright, but still had feet that allowed her to scamper easily up trees. That would have been fun.

The most interesting clue regarding the ability to speak at the time Dikiti lived was a tiny hyoid bone found as part of her skeleton, a bone that many scientists say is the crucial structure that allows speech.

Just as discoveries of hyoid bones among Neanderthal bones opened the door to the possibility that they could speak, this bone at least shows that evolution towards speech had come a long way by the time I was born.

Not all scientists agree on the importance of the hyoid bone for speech. Some question whether the link between the hyoid bone and speech is real. The scientist who found Dikika is among the doubters. However, he does believe the discovery of this bone is important because it suggests that our species, afarensis, had large laryngeal air sacs and thus, probably a voice box similar to those of chimps.

People who aren’t scientists but like to speculate about these things go back and forth on what this all means. They say that we didn’t hunt so we didn’t need to talk with each other about strategy. On the other hand, they say that even if we didn’t have language or the hyoid bone doesn’t matter, we could make mouth sounds like the modern day !Kung language or use tones like birds to communicate.

A bigger question – which came first, thought or speech – will have to wait for another day.

– Lucy of Hadar

Poets, playwrights, painters pen skeletal prose


Hi everyone,

To get ready for our discussion tomorrow on whether I could speak, here are some thoughts people have written down on skeletons.  I really enjoy seeing how people have portrayed skeletons through the past few centuries. Happy to be part of all of it.  I’ve included a link to a poster that you could use to bring skeleton art to your home or office.

Lucy of Hadar

If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance.

– George Bernard Shaw

Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.

– Virginia Wolff

I have always been respectful, even reverential,
in a room where you can look a human skeleton in the eye sockets.

– Carl Sandburg

The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks.

– Henry Miller, writer and painter

There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless.
– Wilson Mizner, earl 20th Century playwright

Terror Birds and Rain for Lucy’s ancestors


Hello everyone,

I know I promised you some stories about my experiences with “terror birds.” I’m a little too young, I’m afraid, to have actually seen one, but many tales have come down from my ancestors.

This is the story that used to scare and inspire us the most.

One night, about 3 million years before I was born, a group of what you would call hominins were sitting around the fire, concerned that they had little food. No rain had fallen and the berries and leaves were few.

They heard a terrible crunching sound. It was getting louder. They scampered up the tallest tree and saw the terror bird. It was seven feet tall, weighed 300 points and had a 2-foot pointed beak.

It was moving quickly on its two three-toed legs. These predators could eat an animal  twice the size of our ancestors. Our ancestors were as still as they could be.

The terror bird thundered over to the tree. It was steps away from being able to open its hollow beak to pierce one of my ancestors and scoop him up into his mouth.

Terror bird skull compared with a modern day golden eagle and human skull.
– Ohio University.pierce one of the group and scoop it up into its mouth.

One of the females in the group, a new mother with a cub clinging to her fur, noticed that a dead log was lying within reach.

The timing had to be just right. She grunted softly to let the others know what she was about to do. She gave the cub to its father and picked up the log with both hands.

Just as the monster’s hollow beak was opened the widest, she rammed the log in as far as she could.

As the terror bird squawked and tried to get the log loose, she took the baby back and with the others leaped from tree to tree to escape. As they swung higher and higher and moved to safety, the universe recognized the courage and cooperation of the mother and her clan.

The sky rumbled and the rain began to fall. It fell for a moon. Once again there were leaves and berries and the clan survived.

My ancestor who spotted the log became known as Mother Who Saves.  After she died people continued to make offerings to her.

You probably know there are many theories about how the first terror birds got from South America to our part of Africa. More about that later!

Bones Tell Stories about how we live and how we did, or didn’t, die


Hi everyone,

As you can see from my recent tweet, a June 8 discovery of 200-year old bones in Belgium provided new clues about the events of the Battle of Waterloo and the soldiers who fought and died there, when Prussian and English troops defeated Napoleon. You can even see the bullet still nestled between to rib bones. What a find!

Soldier from 1815 Battle of Waterloo

My bones also tell some tales about how I lived and probably died. The wonderful people who found my bones speculated that I died quietly and wasn’t killed by animals. They are right that no animals were involved. My death seems almost boring compared to some.

There were no tooth marks on my bones, so I wasn’t the meal of a lion or saber-toothed cat. My skeleton was almost all together, so hyenas hadn’t taken my head and limbs in different directions. They think I might have been sick or drowned in what was then a stream where my pack often went to wash or just splash around.

We would also eat fruit, gather nuts and chew on grasses in that area. I see that a new discovery suggests that some other pre-humans who lived further south and about a million years after me ate tree bark, even though there was plenty of grass and leaves around!

Why would one eat bark and wood?  I tasted some once and it was very rough and bitter. The scientists could tell the tree-climbing pre-human, a young male, ate hard foods from the tiny bits of plant particles they found in his dental tartar and even tinier carbon isotopes in his tooth enamel.

2M years old, ate tree bark

None of my teeth were found because the front part of my skull was washed away, but you can believe me that I never ate another piece of bark!  After being buried under layers and layers of sand, dirt and other debris for more than 3 million years, the rains in Hadar washed all that away only a few years before my bones were found.

How did I die? Even I don’t know for sure. I was grooming a friend one minute and in the afterlife the next.

Not a bad end to what had been a full life. More about that when we chat again.

Night sky, diamonds and precious bones


Hi everyone, I’m told it was a beautiful night around the campfire near the Awash River in Ethiopia when I got my name.

Awash River

Archeologists had found my bones scattered around and they were excited at the possibility that they might learn a lot from them.  The scattering is strange, since I remember those bones clearly as being part of my body, all nicely connected.

I suppose that in 3.2 million years a few things could have shifted. I’m told there was an arm bone fragment lying on a slope, a small skull, a thigh bone, some vertebrae and ribs, part of a pelvis and even a jaw bone. I want to thank the Institute of Human Origins for keeping track of all this, and especially Donald Johanson for putting me back together and writing about it.

But I digress. Everybody asks about my nickname.

Here’s how the story goes, according to Dr. Johanson. It was was evening and they were celebrating.

“The camp was rocking with excitement. That first night we never went to bed at all. We drank beer after beer. There was a tape recorder in the camp, and a tape of the Beatles song, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ went belting out into the night sky, and was played at full volume over and over again out of sheer exuberance.

“At some point during that unforgettable evening…the new fossil picked up the name of Lucy, and has been so known ever since.”

   Donald Johanson, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

Since my official name is AL 288-1, you can imagine how happy I am that someone was playing such great music that night and all the archeologist who found my bones had a sense of humor.

Have a happy Solstice this week. Welcome back the sun and warmth. It is still one of my favorite holidays. And take a look at my tweet of the discovery that my ancestors left Asia for Africa even longer ago than people thought, maybe 37 million years ago. And you thought I was old.


Meet Lucy of Hadar


Hi everyone,

Some of you may have already met Lucy of Hadar over in Twitterland. She has taken over the Twitter feed that I formerly wrote and having a great time with it.

Lucy lived 3.2 million years ago. We know that because scientists used several highly sophisticated methods to date the ash in which an archeology team found her bones in the Hadar region of Ethiopia in 1974.

Lucy’s Bones
© Institute of Human Origins

The archeologists were excited because they had found nearly 40 percent of Lucy’s skeleton and  could tell from her knee bone that she walked upright. At the time, that made her our oldest  human ancestor. The bone fragments were scattered and it took a few weeks to determine that they all belonged to one person.

“Lucy brought with her an image of our human ancestors you don’t get when you find a jaw or an arm bone or a leg bone.”

–  Archeologist Donald Johanson, member of the team who discovered Lucy’s bones, a Chicago native, founder of the Institute of Human Origins at Berkeley University and author of several books on human origins.

Welcome to Skeletons Among Us


Hi everyone,

Welcome to Skeletons Among Us, a fun and sometimes spooky place where you can explore archeology, visit skeletons in art, literature and music, and keep up to date with the latest Skeleton news.

We will also celebrate Skeleton holidays, such as January 10, when in 1983 a small bone that one must have to be able to speak was discovered in a 60,000 year old skeleton. The age of the skeleton raised the possibility that Neanderthals could make sounds that could be formed into words!

Called the hyoid, this small bone is shaped like a horse shoe, supports the tongue and lifts up the larynx. This hyoid was found in a cave in Mt. Carmel, Israel, in Middle Palaeolithic layers that date back 60,000 years, according to the researchers from Tel-Aviv University who made the discovery.

Come back here often to see what’s new.


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