Donald Johanson’s book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind was what first made me fall in love with paleoanthropology. While I have learned about dozens more fossils over the last two years, I still have a special place in my heart for Lucy. So you can imagine how excited I was to defend her from the lies of the young-earth creationists at Answers in Genesis! I once might not have known how to debunk their claims, but I now have the knowledge, the books, and a little bit of money needed to find so many errors in their articles.
The articles I will be refuting are the following:
Lucy: Did She Walk Like Us? by Anonymous
A Look at Lucy’s Legacy by David Menton and Elizabeth Mitchell on June 6, 2012
Lucy in the Trees by Elizabeth Mitchell on November 17, 2012
Between the three articles, I was able to find 10 intentional lies—not mistakes, as we’ll see—about Lucy and her species Australopithecus afarensis. (Creationist scavenger hunt, anyone?) I will obviously get into more detail, but just for context, A. afarensis (which includes Lucy and others) is a species of hominid, and a possible human ancestor, that had a mixture of humanlike and apelike features (not entirely unlike Australopithecus sediba) and lived from about 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago. Lucy herself is estimated to have lived around 3.2 million years ago. We’ll learn a lot more about her today. But what does Answers in Genesis have to say about her?
Lie #1: Lucy could not have made the Laetoli footprints
If you know much about human evolution at all, then you have probably heard of the Laetoli footprints. This straight 70-meter-long trail of footprints, fossilized in volcanic ash, dates from 3.66 million years ago. They were discovered in 1978 by Mary Leakey in Laetoli, Tanzania, about 1,000 miles away from the Lucy skeleton that had been discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974 by Don Johanson, who would soon become the Leakeys’ academic rival.
It’s debated, but largely accepted, that A. afarensis (obviously not Lucy herself) is responsible for these footprints, which are evidence of virtually perfect, humanlike bipedality (upright walking) by 3.66 million years ago. This is when Answers in Genesis first takes issue with the literal rock-hard evidence.
It’s a recurring theme when reading AiG articles that they project their biased interpretations onto “evolutionists”. According to AiG and their belief that the only bipedal humanlike species is Homo sapiens, these footprints must have been made by us—but we essentially invented Lucy as the maker of the prints. They say:
“You see, rather than question their dating methods, evolutionists believe these ‘human-like’ footprints must be from the time before humans. Since humans weren’t there (in their scheme of history), they need something else that could have done it. And that’s where Lucy comes in.”Lucy: Did She Walk Like Us?
Using their staple circular reasoning, they turn right around and say that “the case for a human-like Lucy mainly depends on fossilized footprints.” Of course, no one thinks this but them. What we know about Lucy herself would not change at all if we had never found these footprints. Why? We don’t even know that they were made by her species. Answers in Genesis doubts this too, but not for the right reason.
Lie #2: “Evolutionists” made up Lucy to justify their beliefs
AiG likes to paint paleoanthropologists as a group of conniving anti-God scientists who are trying to hide from the world that they have no idea what they are talking about and that they make up species as it suits them. While that’s taking it a little far, it’s absolutely no secret that the field is wrought with drama and controversy, and that these scientists are at times making educated guesses off of not enough evidence. It’s why we are always searching for more fossils: to get a more complete picture.
So AiG must have been giddy to learn about the controversy between Mary Leakey, Don Johanson, and Tim White, and how AiG can spin it to make it sound like the three paleoanthropologists’ opinions have no basis in fact. In the article A Look at Lucy’s Legacy, Menton and Mitchell scoffed, “Leakey disagreed when Johanson identified the makers of the Laetoli tracks as Australopithecus afarensis, saying Johanson’s work was ‘not very scientific.'” The truth is not that Leakey thought the tracks were made by Homo sapiens, which is what Answers in Genesis wants you to think she said. In fact, the truth is way more interesting.
Lie #3: Lucy is in competition to become the most famous human ancestor
The drama between Johanson and the Leakey family came from a disagreement about the hominid family tree. Mary Leakey, her husband Louis, and her son Richard had been on a quest to discover the world’s first human. Thus, they wanted to believe that the genus Homo evolved alongside the genus Australopithecus and not from Australopithecus. When Johanson discovered Lucy and dated her at 3.2 million years old, the Leakeys didn’t want to accept that humans had to be younger than that. They held the idea of “Old Homo“. So when Mary Leakey found the footprints, she wanted this Old Homo, or unsupported ancient human—probably Homo habilis—to be their maker. When Johanson presented the footprints as having been made by Lucy, Leakey was pissed.
But Johanson had thought he had Leakey’s permission to announce these conclusions about his Lucy fossils and her Laetoli footprints, and he thought he had good reason to see them as connected. You see, while the two sites are so far away in both space (1,000 miles) and time (460,000 years), there were similar fossils to the Hadar ones (including Lucy) found at Laetoli, and it is widely accepted to this day that the two groups of fossils belong to the same species (assuming significant differences in the sexes of A. afarensis). So since many—but certainly not all—scientists today think that both fossils were from the same species, they say it’s not too far off that the prints were made by them as well.
Is Answers in Genesis really wrong in saying that paleoanthropologists compete for public attention for their fossils? No. But as we’ve already seen (especially regarding Neanderthals), AiG likes to take a nugget of truth and turn it on its head. Specifically, they like to pit fossils against each other, especially Lucy and Karabo, the A. sediba fossil that also has a mix of apelike and humanlike traits.
I think that their treatment of it as a competition for “missing link” is part of their mockery of human evolution and misunderstanding of the hominid family tree. Neither A. afarensis nor A. sediba existed just to be a stepping stone from “apes” to “humans”, like their graphic shows. We don’t know which, if any, of the discovered or undiscovered australopith branches actually became Homo sapiens. They existed and were well adapted to their environments, and their existence isn’t validated only if they evolved into you.
Lie #4: We don’t have enough bones to know what Lucy would have looked like
I went to the Creation Museum in 2019… just to see. I didn’t know at the time that they had a “human origins” exhibit, but after having seen the pictures online, I’m glad I didn’t. Check out this one.
As I said before, Answers in Genesis likes to take small truths and turn them into big lies. For example, paleoanthropologists did have a difficult time deciding what Lucy would have looked like with her few skull fragments alone. But this exhibit was unveiled in 2012. In additon to scores of other Australopithecus afarensis fossils known as the First Family found at the same site as Lucy in 1975, in 1992, Yoel Rak discovered a much more complete male A. afarensis skull known as AL 444-2, also at Hadar. In fact, it was using this specimen and a composite female skull that paleoartist John Gurche was able to construct some of the most famous Lucy depictions that you’ve probably already seen.
Lie #5: Lucy was a knuckle-walker
If you thought that that Creation Museum exhibit was bad, then you’re not ready for this. Just wait and see what they’ve done to Lucy.
One blogger (not me, but I don’t disagree) called this depiction of Lucy an abomination. As a matter of fact, one of the AiG articles I was going to critique, Lucy, the Knuckle-Walking ‘Abomination’? is just an in-depth rebuttal of his critique of their exhibit. I still would have critiqued their article, but the blogger already did in yet another post. I decided that everything in their article had already been covered and that I’d leave it be. (Hence why I have been critiquing A Look at Lucy’s Legacy in its place.)
As great as his posts were, the blogger, Adam Benton, didn’t actually say much about AiG’s claims that Lucy was a knuckle-walker. With literally no evidence that she was, and an abundance of evidence that she could both walk and swing in trees, saying that she was primarily a knuckle-walker is a bold claim. Why on Earth would Answers in Genesis say that?
As it turns out, this claim is supported by a scientific article that appeared in Nature in 2000. According to AiG, “Evolutionists Brian Richmond and David Strait compared the skeletal morphology of living knuckle-walking primates to the bones of Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy’s bones show the features used to lock the wrist for secure knuckle-walking seen in modern knuckle-walkers.” They went so far as to quote the article, saying, “They believed Lucy was adding bipedal abilities to her already efficient ‘repertoire consisting of terrestrial knuckle-walking, arboreal climbing and occasional suspensory activities, not unlike that observed in chimpanzees today.’ They question why such a creature would evolve bipedalism.”
Wait, did I say that Answers in Genesis made a bold claim backed up by science? What I meant was that they used a paper that is behind a paywall, so that no one would double check and find out that they cut out a part that looks like it agrees with them, when in fact the paper itself directly says that Lucy was definitely not a knuckle-walker.
Nine dollars and 62 cents poorer, I now know what the Nature authors actually said:
“Previous studies have noted that early hominids lack other distinctive knuckle-walking features. . . . However, because these features are not always present in extant knuckle-walkers, their absence in hominids does not rule out knuckle-walking ancestry. Rather, the absence of these features in early hominids, in conjunction with clearly derived morphological evidence for bipedalism, suggests to us that early hominids did not themselves practise knuckle-walking. The total morphological pattern is consistent with the suggestion that the knuckle-walking morphology in the wrists of A. anamensis and A. afarensis was retained from a knuckle-walking ancestor.”Richmond, Brian, and David Strait. 2000. Evidence that humans evolved from a knuckle-walking ancestor. Nature 404:382–5. Emphasis mine.
While I’m at it, here is the full quote that AiG took out of context, trying to say that Lucy was a knuckle-walker:
“Pre-bipedal locomotion is probably best characterized as a repertoire consisting of terrestrial knuckle-walking, arboreal climbing and occasional suspensory activities, not unlike that observed in chimpanzees today. This raises the question of why bipedalism would evolve from an ancestor already adapted to terrestrial locomotion, and is consistent with models relating the evolution of bipedalism to a change in feeding strategies and novel non-locomotor uses of the hand.”Richmond, Brian, and David Strait. 2000. Evidence that humans evolved from a knuckle-walking ancestor. Nature 404:382–5.
I know, that was a lot. It took me a few reads over to understand it. Basically, the paper is simply describing what form of locomotion came before bipedality. The authors use A. afarensis and A. anamensis and their retained knuckle-walking traits to show that they evolved from knuckle-walking ancestors, not that they themselves were. Additionally, the authors explain that we aren’t sure exactly why we would have evolved bipedality, since at first glance it seems inefficient, but they provide a couple of hypotheses at the end. From my studies, there is a huge feedback loop involved in why we first stood up—and unlike what AiG says, it was not “so that we could see over the grass,” which locomotion expert Owen Lovejoy calls “poppycock”—so perhaps one day I’ll devote a whole post to just that.
Lie #6: Lucy had no humanlike features
Let’s go back for a moment to those Creation Museum exhibits that mysteriously show far too few bones. Answers in Genesis loves to talk about bones that are either more apelike than humanlike or that are inconclusive enough to be misinterpreted as apelike, hence the big focus on Lucy’s knuckle-walking “repertoire”. But anyone familiar with paleoanatomy knows that some of the best ways to determine a creature’s bipedality or place in the hominid family tree is to look at two things: the teeth and the foramen magnum.
AiG never brought up Lucy’s mandible (lower jaw), which was found intact by Don Johanson who specialized in dentition. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to zoom in on the description of “Lucy’s” Creation Museum exhibit to see this: “Lucy’s Mandible (Lower Jaw): A well preserved mandible of A. afarensis was discovered by Rak and coworkers in 2007. This mandible clearly resembled that of a gorilla rather than that of a human or even a chimp. The authors concluded that this ‘casts doubt on the role of A. afarensis as a modern human ancestor.'” (To be clear, Yoel Rak’s paper describing this find suggests that A. afarensis is more closely linked to robust australopiths—not gorillas—than we thought. And they might not be a direct human ancestor, which is okay.)
So why would they leave out Lucy’s little v-shaped mandible? Well, Lucy’s teeth—and those of her family—are one of her most humanlike features. Scroll in the slideshow below to see Johanson’s explanation of how A. afarensis has a “manlike body and an apelike head,” and note the difference between the teeth of a chimp and A. afarensis.
The teeth are not the only thing that AiG left out. The foramen magnum is the hole in the skull where the spine connects. For creatures who walk on all fours, it is in the back, and for bipedal creatures, it is in the bottom. This makes it so that no matter where our bodies are in relation to our eyes, we are still looking straight ahead and not down at the ground or up at the sky. Well, guess where A. afarensis‘s foramen magnum is? Yep, it’s at the bottom: the same place as modern humans, which indicates that it stood upright. Actually, it’s not quite as far forward as ours are, which is even more damning for Answers in Genesis, because it truly shows just how transitional A. afarensis was.
Lie #7: Lucy’s knees were not suited for walking
There are a few more bones that show how humanlike Australopithecus afarensis is, but Answers in Genesis didn’t ignore these ones for some reason. It might have been better for them if they had, because their arguments fall flat.
If you’ve read my post Answers in Genesis is Threatened by Human Fossil Discoveries, then you might be familiar with this faulty “gotcha” tactic. Their authors like to say “if this trait on X species means they could do this, and Y species has the same trait but clearly cannot do that, then that trait can’t be used to show that X species can do that either.” In this instance, X species is A. afarensis, Y species is both orangutans and spider monkeys, the trait in question is the valgus angle of the knee, and the ability is that of walking upright.
The valgus angle of the knee is something we humans have that allows us to walk upright steadily without swaying back and forth. When looking at the human (and A. afarensis) skeletons below, you can see that our thigh bones slant inward the further down toward the knee we go. I doubted whether orangutans and spider monkeys really have this trait, as they obviously are not obligate bipeds who need a reliably steady gait like we do. I didn’t even find anything significant about it when I Googled it, so I decided to check them out myself.
When you look at both the Homo sapiens and A. afarensis skeletons above, you’ll see that the femurs connect to the tibias in a way that they angle inward, but the opposite is the case with the orangutan and spider monkey skeletons. I have no idea where AiG got this information, but it doesn’t seem to be able to stand on its own regardless.
If seeing the Lucy skeleton doesn’t convince you of this knee angle, as it doesn’t include a femur and tibia from the same leg, here is what happened when Don Johanson did discover an A. afarensis femur and tibia from the same site the year before:
As I studied it, I realized that I had joined the femur and the tibia at an angle. I had not done it deliberately. They had gone together that way naturally; that was the way they had to go. Then I remembered that a monkey’s tibia and femur joined in a straight line. Almost against my own will I began to picture in my mind the skeleton of a human being, and recall the outward slant from knee to thigh that was peculiar to upright walkers.
I tried to refit the bones together to bring them into line. They would not go. It dawned on me that this was a hominid fossil.Donald Johanson, Lucy, p. 155
In mentioning this I would be remiss in not acknowledging that Johanson confirmed that this matched the fit of a human knee by robbing a gravesite of the local Afar tribe to find a femur and tibia. If only those who make great discoveries could be just as great as respecting others, but too often they are not.
Lie #8: Lucy’s pelvis was not suited for walking
As Answers in Genesis grasps to continue their narrative that Lucy could not walk, they pivot from arguing that she knuckle-walked to arguing that she swung in trees.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what they are trying to get at when discussing A. afarensis‘s pelvis and iliac blades. They point out that her pelvis would not have been shaped for the perfect upright walking that we see in modern humans, and use this fact to argue that “an efficient bipedal gait [is] skeletally impossible.” Perhaps I’m mistaken, but do they need to walk perfectly in order to count as being able to walk? I know that an imperfect gait might rule out that A. afarensis made those humanlike Laetoli footprints, but if the evidence doesn’t match up then so be it.
AiG brings up a paper from the Journal of Human Evolution and tries to use it to imply that Australopithecus afarensis could not walk, when the paper’s title literally says “How did the australopithecines walk?” The paper analyzes A. afarensis‘s hip and thigh, and it concludes that “australopithecine bipedalism differs from that of humans” and there is “retention of a partly arboreal [tree-climbing] behavior.” The AiG authors use this to ask, “Does this support the evolutionists’ original contention?”
This question is flawed because (good) evolutionists don’t go about things trying to confirm their previously held beliefs. What we believe about Lucy is based on evidence, so the evidence will tell us if she was bipedal or arboreal. Maybe the fact that she was both isn’t what we originally thought, but that’s why we do our best to keep finding more evidence to tell us. Lucy’s fame in the first place was because she debunked scientists’ belief that we evolved large brains before bipedality; changing our accepted beliefs is what moves science forward.
As a matter of fact, Lucy’s ability to both walk and swing in trees is not much of a problem for evolutionists at all. Last month I attended a Zoom lecture held by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where paleoartist John Gurche shared his process in creating the beautiful australopith models that he makes. I was especially interested to learn how he chose the position for Lucy at the Smithsonian exhibit I visited in 2019. He wanted to show that Lucy both climbed and walked, so he made her with one arm reaching into a tree and one foot touching down on the ground. In his book Shaping Humanity, he wrote, “This moment of touchdown also works on symbolic levels, representing humanity’s descent from the trees.”
Lie #9: Lucy’s shoulders were suited for tree-climbing, so she could not have walked
The Answers in Genesis article Lucy in the Trees is the only one I read in which they acknowledge that Lucy is not the only famous A. afarensis fossil and that we can learn about the species using more specimens than just her (although they slyly used a different mandible when it suited the narrative of their Lucy exhibit). We meet Selam, the juvenile female A. afarensis fossil discovered in 2000 by Zeray Alemseged. Selam is important because her fossils include both a complete face and a shoulder bone. (This makes me especially frustrated that the 2012 exhibit acted like it had no way of knowing what an A. afarensis face might have looked like.)
This article was written in response to a LiveScience article (reposted on Fox News) written in 2012 once Selam’s shoulder was extracted from the sandstone block containing the rest of the skeleton. It’s worth noting that this very article, which the AiG author would have read and then acted like it fit her narrative, is clear throughout that A. afarensis definitely walked upright and did not knuckle-walk.
All of these AiG articles are full of what they must think are “gotcha” moments. The “gotcha” moment here is that Selam’s shoulders show that our ancestors were still tree-dwellers later than we thought, and Mitchell, the author, uses this to call Selam’s shoulders “apelike”. For her, this is supposed to mean that “evolutionists have found additional anatomical evidence that Australopithecus afarensis was just an ape . . . another exhibit in the ape section of the zoo.”
What is really frustrating for me is that Mitchell is saying this in response to an entire quote from the LiveScience article explaining that A. afarensis was arboreal and bipedal, occupied a pivotal place in human evolution, and was not fully human but was clearly on its way. Her response is essentially, “No. God created apes and humans. We did not evolve,” with no explanation of show how she would have arrived at that conclusion.
Lie #10: Lucy could not have been a hominid or a human ancestor
Mitchell saying that God creates apes and humans as separate kinds on the same day 6,000 years ago brings us back to why Answers in Genesis fights so hard against Lucy being bipedal or transitional in the first place. Especially with so many contradictions and seemingly random points that they defend with such dedication, it was easy for me throughout reading these articles to lose sight of why AiG is choosing these specific points to defend. Of course, it all goes back to trying to designate Lucy and her species as everyday modern apes like gorillas and orangutans. If she’s anything else, then that might show that our species actually evolved from apelike creatures instead of descending from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Answers in Genesis cuts a lot of corners in trying to reach this conclusion. One of their main shortcuts was heavily implying that in order to be a human ancestor, one must be a hominid, and in order to be a hominid, one must be bipedal. This is so wrong for so many reasons. Most obvious is that our ancestry is shared with every other living thing on Earth and thus necessarily stretches far back past bipedal hominids, past knuckle-walking apes, past mammals, to the first single-celled organism. They were all our ancestors.
Another reason this is wrong is that once again, AiG conveniently ignores what the word “hominid” means. Luckily, anthropologist Alice Roberts clearly defines both “hominin” and “hominid”:
The term “hominin” refers to human ancestors and extinct relatives. Hominins have small canine teeth and anatomical adaptations for upright walking and are more closely related to humans than to any of the other apes. The term “hominid” refers to a family of extinct and living primates colloquially called the “great apes.” There are dozens of extinct hominids known from the fossil record. The living hominids are humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.Alice Roberts, A Most Interesting Problem, p. 24, footnote
Joke’s on you, AiG. In no way does a creature need to be bipedal to be a hominid. In fact, the apes that you insist are the opposite of hominids… are also hominids. And the humans that you insist are not apes are also apes. That includes you. Our great ape family makes a hell of a lot more sense when you think of it as what it is: a family.
I hope you’ve enjoyed what has become my longest blog post by far. Many fellow evolutionists often tell me that I am wasting my time in trying to actually pick apart every problem with the claims of Answers in Genesis, but in all honesty, I love to do it. For one—the more selfish reason—I absolutely love how researching for a post like this requires me to learn even more about paleoanthropology than I did before, go back through my bookshelf, and practice my science writing. Secondly, I sincerely hope that at least one person who isn’t sure how to refute these creationist claims can find my posts and know how to articulately argue (or at least grasp) that Lucy is, if not our direct ancestor, an important part of our human family.
And of course, you never have to take my word for it; check out my sources below.
Berge, C. (1994). How did the australopithecines walk? A biomechanical study of the hip and thigh of Australopithecus afarensis. Journal of Human Evolution, 26(4), 259–273. https://doi.org/10.1006/jhev.1994.1016
Choi, C. Q. (2012, October 25). Early Human ‘Lucy’ Swung from the Trees. LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/24297-early-human-lucy-swung-from-trees.html.
DeSilva, J. M., & Roberts, A. (2021). The Fetus, the Fish Heart, and the Fruit Fly. In A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution. essay, Princeton University Press.
Green, D. J., & Alemseged, Z. (2012). Australopithecus afarensis Scapular Ontogeny, Function, and the Role of Climbing in Human Evolution. Science, 338(6106), 514–517. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1227123
Gurche, J. (2013). Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins. Yale University Press.
Johanson, D. C., & Edey, M. A. (1981). Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Simon and Schuster.
Rak, Y., Ginzburg, A., & Geffen, E. (2007). Gorilla-like anatomy on Australopithecus afarensis mandibles suggests Au. afarensis link to robust australopiths. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(16), 6568–6572. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0606454104
Richmond, B. G., & Strait, D. S. (2000). Evidence that humans evolved from a knuckle-walking ancestor. Nature, 404(6776), 382–385. https://doi.org/10.1038/35006045
Tattersall, I. (2012). Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins. Palgrave Macmillan.