Every good story starts at the beginning. In the first episode of Origin Stories we talk with Carol Ward about one of the first things that distinguished our ancestors from the other primates, the weird way we walk around.
Carol Ward is Curator’s Professor and Director of Anatomical Sciences in the integrative anatomy program at the University of Missouri, where she directs the Ward Laboratory. Her lab is interested in the evolution of the skeleton below the neck in early African primates. Most of their work at the lab involves studying the functional morphology of modern primates and other mammals to explore what it can tell them about locomotor adaptation and evolutionary history. She’s also a paleoanthropologist who conducts field work at a site called Kanapoi in the West Turkana Basin in Kenya. Her project is called the West Turkana Paleo Project.
Professor Carol Ward overlooking Kanapoi in the West Turkana Basin in Kenya. Photo courtesy of the West Turkana Paleo Project.
In this episode we learn about a discovery that helped answer a question about one of our most famous fossil ancestors, Lucy. Lucy is an Australopithecus afarensis, and her skeleton was discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson. We knew that Lucy and her species could move around on two feet by looking at things like the pelvis and femur. We also had the Laetoli footprints, which were discovered by Mary Leakey in 1978, but scientists were still missing an important piece of evidence. Lucy’s skeleton was missing something very important…the feet.
Lucy Australopithecus afarensis AL 288-1. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Donald Johanson and his colleague William Kimbel, both from the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, found some new fossils at a site in Ethiopia near where Lucy was discovered. They invited Carol Ward to come to the National Museum of Ethiopia to examine them.
The new research facility at the National Museum of Ethiopia.
Photo illustration courtesy of Carol Ward.
The results of Carol Ward’s visit to Ethiopia and her subsequent research were published in the journal Science in 2011. You can read the abstract of the paper “Complete Fourth Metatarsal and Arches in the Foot of Australopithecus afarensis” by Carol Ward, William Kimbel and Don Johanson here. The full paper is free to read with registration on Science‘s website.