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Dinknesh - a peek into the history of humankind

Mantegaftot Sileshi | Yohannes Gebre Egziabher | Philipp Sandner
January 8, 2018

The discovery of Dinknesh, also known as Lucy, changed the way we understand evolution. Her 3.2 million-year-old fossilized skeleton was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia.

African Roots Lucy Dinknesh
Image: Comic Republic

Dinknesh: A peek into the history of humankind

Where was Dinknesh found? She was discovered near the Ethiopian village of Hadar in the Afar Triangle, a geographical depression that is part of the Great Rift Valley.

Why is Dinknesh famous? Dinknesh probably lived 3.2 million years ago. When her fossilized bones were excavated in 1974, she was hailed as the oldest early human — or hominin — ever found. Scientists also found 40 percent of her bones, making her the most complete skeleton of an early human species. Dinknesh belonged to a new species, which was given the scientific name Australopithecus afarensis ('southern ape from afar' in Latin). By studying Dinknesh, scientists learned much about human evolution, such as how these hominins moved.

But Dinknesh was an ape, wasn't she? Dinknesh was not an ape. She is more closely related to modern humans than to modern apes. And she already had some humanlike features. The study of her bones showed she was already capable of walking upright — although she probably felt more comfortable on trees than the ground.

How old was Dinknesh? By looking at her teeth, bone development and vertebrae, scientists believe Dinknesh was a young, but fully mature adult when she died.

Who was Dinknesh or Lucy?

How did Dinknesh get her names? Donald Johanson and Tom Gray, the American scientists who found Dinknesh, celebrated their discovery at their camp by listening to the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." This is how the unique fossil got its first name, Lucy. Her other, more recent name is Dinknesh, which means "you are marvelous" in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language. Alas, her first name is so popular that "Dinknesh" is not commonly known outside her home country.

Recent archaeological discoveries have left me confused. Has Dinknesh lost her meaning? The history of humankind will always keep some of its mysteries. The links between the ancestors of modern humans may be subject to contestation. In recent years, besides more discoveries in Ethiopia, the discovery of a new species in South Africa has created a stir: Homo Naledi is estimated to have lived 2.8 million years ago — only a few hundred thousand years after Dinknesh. But its status among the hominini — those early humans granted the genus "homo" — is contested. Then where do modern humans, or homo sapiens, come from? Morocco? Ethiopia? Or possibly even somewhere outside Africa? The debate continues. To date, all new findings, be it Homo Naledi or all those classified like Dinknesh as "Australopithecus," confirm that the ancestors of modern humans, whatever their color, were African.

Can I go and see Dinknesh? Yes and no. Dinknesh's fossilized bones are hidden away from the public in a special safe in the National Museum of Ethiopia in the country's capital, Addis Ababa. But you can see a plaster replica of the 47 bones that make up her skeleton at the National Museum and in other museums around the world. Plus, the website eLucy has scans of all her bones, as well as comparisons of her skeleton compared to other finds. 

Mantegaftot Sileshi, Yohannes Gebre Egziabher and Philipp Sandner contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots," dedicated to African history, a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.