What Killed The First Family?

Lucy is, arguably, the most famous australopithecine fossil in the world. So famous, in fact, that she overshadows the remarkable collection known as the first family. The first family was discovered in the third season at Hadar and consists of over 200 bones representing 13-17 australopithecines. The exact manner of their death is something of a mystery.


Early theories revolve around flash floods. Cosmic Log has an interesting article that touches on the subject:

In the past, investigators have suggested that the entire troop of hominids might have died in a flash flood, or were done in by a bout of food poisoning. But Behrensmeyer said the current prevailing theory is that they were the victims of a “surplus killing” by blood-crazed predators. “This is documented as a natural phenomenon,” she said.
Behrensmeyer noted that the biggest predators of the time were saber-toothed cats. One scenario suggests that the cats massacred a whole troop of hominids, perhaps leaving behind remains to be scavenged by the ancestors of modern-day hyenas.
But anthropologists are still only in the early stages of the investigation. Some still question whether the First Family was actually a familial unit, or instead represented a variety of hominid species whose bones were cached together by scavengers.

Of course this later idea has been kicking around for ahile. this short article elaborates a little:

Behrensmeyer and Harmon first determined that the channel in which the First Family perished carried only a shallow stream of water, so they probably didn’t drown. Next, the researchers determined that the First Family died in an isolated area that contains few remains of other creatures. [something Johanson noted in his book – afarensis]
Finally, the First Family’s fossils display a cardinal sign of carnivore consumption. Remains from below the head come primarily from the arms and legs, with virtually no rib or vertebral bones. Carcasses fed on first by large predators and then by smaller, scavenging animals commonly exhibit this pattern of bone loss, the researchers say.

While I am on the subject, can someone send me the article below:
Reassessment of the paleoenvironment and preservation of hominid fossils from Hadar, Ethiopia American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Volume 87 Issue 1, Pages 15 – 27

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7 Responses

  1. So, this is the REAL reason, Adam has one less rib that Eve! I mean Lucy, and why Cain, I mean DaveScot has no backbone.
    AHH! I love the smell of science in the morning!

  2. There’s an experiment underway at FriendFeed, trying to gather data on researchers being stymied by lack of access to the literature: http://friendfeed.com/rooms/references-wanted.
    I’ve taken the liberty of posting your ms request to that room. One of the happy side-effects of this experiment is that a colleague is often able to send you the paper you’re after.

  3. Argh, that link doesn’t work — delete the period at the end.

  4. I must say I always wondered if there was a connection between the death of this group of ancient hominids and the eruption of that volcano which enabled the preservation of those footprints at Laetoli — i.e., the result of pyroclastic flow and accompanying smothering ash or poisonous gases like at Pompeii. Then later predators happened on dead bodies and chewed, streams washed bones about, etc. But I’ve only ever been able to read snippets here and there and can’t seen to find out enough detail on dates or locations. Anybody know?

  5. paper sent.

  6. Afarensis, I have a copy of the paper from Michael in case he didn’t send it to you directly (I can’t see an email address for you around here).

  7. Thanks Bill, but I did get Michael’s copy.

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