Lucy’s Legacy: Celebrating the 48th Anniversary of Her Discovery with a Selfie

The iconic ancient hominin gets her hands on a smartphone in anticipation of the museum’s upcoming exhibition exploring the global impact of cellphones.

Lucy Selfie portrait- HD.jpg
Composed of silica, resin, yak hair and a smartphone, the museum’s new Lucy model explores the continuing role tools play on human evolution. Elisabeth Daynès

It was November 24, 1974. Nixon had just resigned from office and the first Toshiba floppy disk drive was introduced to the world. Stephen King had just published “Carrie” and the hit song “The Way We Were” by Barbara Streisand was at the top of the charts. But it was a song from 1967, “Lucy in the Sky With the Diamonds” by the Beatles, that blasted through the tent of paleoanthropologists after Donald Johanson and Tom Gray discovered a broken ulna bone of an ancient hominin in a shallow stream in Hadar, Ethiopia.

As the celebration roared, an attendee named the 3.18 million year-old hominin “Lucy” and the name stuck, giving the ancient icon a recognizable identity. Lucy was the first of her kind to be found and was later classified as Australopithecus afarensis; a type of hominin that had both human and ape-like characteristics.

48 years later, an artistic rendering of Lucy now stands in a hall of the National Museum of Natural History. Instead of a stone, the hairy hominin holds a smartphone and is mugging for a selfie. The lifelike model underscores the important role tools have played in human evolution since the days of some of our oldest relatives like Lucy. The display also serves as a teaser of the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Cellphone: Unseen Connections.”

In 1974, about 40% of Lucy’s skeleton was unearthed, which was more than enough to change the course of anthropology.. She was small — standing a mere three and a half feet tall and weighing only 60 pounds — but had reached maturity according to forensic analyses of her bones and teeth.

Dental microwear studies show that she ate a plant-based diet, including leaves, fruit, seeds, roots, nuts, and insects and possibly the occasional lizard or other small animal. Her nose was flat and she had a strongly projecting lower jaw and a brain the size of a chimpanzee. Although these hominins could climb and hide, scientists have yet to uncover any tools alongside Australopithecus afarensis fossils.
Discovered at the same locality as Lucy, the AL 444-2 skull (skeletal reconstruction (left) and a lifelike reconstruction of the individual by artist John Gurche) reveals that male Australopithecus afarensis were noticeably larger than females like Lucy. Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution

While humans aren’t the only primates to use tools, instruments have become intertwined in our everyday lives according to Joshua Bell, cultural anthropologist and curator of globalization at the Smithsonian Institution.

One aspect of Bell’s research focuses on the cultural significance of technology, particularly cell phone usage on a global scale. Anthropologists don’t only study the past — they study essentially whatever humans do. And in recent years, much more of what humans do revolves around phones.

“Cultural anthropology is one of those fields where you’re only limited by your imagination,” Bell said, “Because humans interact with almost everything on the planet.”

Since 2011, Bell has been conducting research on cell phones which led to the curation of the “Cellphone” exhibition,which is slated to open to the public on June 23, 2023. The exhibit will feature around 350 objects ranging from gold artwork from Egypt and copper artifacts from the Great Lakes region to tech staples like gold-plated SIM cards and copper wires. Displays will also include 39 portraits of people who work along various aspects of the device’s global supply-chain and use. Collectively these objects and portraits, as well as films, will take visitors through the global impact cell phones have had on humans, our environment and culture globally.

With the emergence of the global popularity of smartphones coinciding with starting his job at the Smithsonian in 2008, Bell became fascinated by the impact cellular phones have had around the globe.  According to Bell, when people think of anthropology, they often think of archaeologists conducting excavations or cultural anthropologists studying communities in faraway places.“Putting this show in the National Museum of Natural History turns that stereotype on its head, illustrating that anthropology is about everyone, anthropology is about natural history and technology is a very important driver in what makes us human,” Bell said. “I wanted the exhibit to be something everyone could see themselves in.”

Head to the museum’s second floor to snap a selfie with the lifelike sculpture of the world famous Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

To help promote the exhibit, the museum agreed to display the life-like sculpture of Lucy holding a smartphone by the French paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès. Composed of silica, resin, metal and a generous covering of yak hair, the work is a nod to what tool use means to hominins in the modern world. In her statement about the piece, Daynès writes, “Lucy selfie is a universal vector going beyond art and science…questioning each and every one of us on the meaning of the tools the 21st century is handing out.”

Bell said the shocking work of art was meant to provoke curiosity from visitors and said although no tools have been found associated with Australopithecus afarensis — especially smartphones — it was still a playful way to reconnect the past to present.

“Our actions have an impact on our planet and tech is intimately related,” Bell said. “Hopefully this gets people to realize that we are not outside of nature and our actions have impacts on our planet.”

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