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In Search of Ancient Humans

She’s only four feet tall and 110 pounds, but little “Ardi” is causing a sensation among paleoanthropologists. Earlier this month, after fifteen years of research, scientists reported that they had identified Ardi’s skeleton as the oldest hominid known to modern humans. Ardipithecus ramidus, as she is formally known, lived 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia. She’s remarkable not just for her age, but for what she tells us about human evolution. Scientists are re-arranging the human family tree in light of this new research.

          Up until Ardi’s discovery, Lucy was the most famous hominid skeleton, and she is still important to an understanding of human evolution. Catherine Thimmesh tells her story for readers ten and up in her new book, “Lucy Long Ago, Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From.”
 
          When paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson found a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton in Ethiopia back in 1974, “The camp was rocking with excitement…Nothing quite like it had ever been discovered.”  Lucy was unusual partly because most of her skeleton was found – not just a stray bone – and because she was unlike any other hominid ever known, with characteristics of both chimpanzees and humans.
 
          Figuring out who or what Lucy was – male or female? child or adult? – makes for a story with all the appeal of “CSI.” Thimmesh uses quotes from scientists, photos and diagrams, and an informative, conversational style to help readers understand how scientists work from what’s known to what’s unknown. 
 
Even artists are important to the process of understanding Lucy’s place in the evolutionary tree. Thimmesh shows how paleo-artist John Gurche sketched Lucy’s skeleton, then formed a model out of clay, and finally added the most important element, fashioning her eyes in a 35-step process. The resulting model stares out of the page with a haunting expression that is sure to provoke wonder in young readers.
 
Much more common than these fossil remains, though much younger, too, are bodies naturally preserved in peat, ash or ice. James M. Deem introduced young readers to Europeans found preserved in peat bogs in “Bodies in the Bog,” and to Romans found preserved in Pompeii in “Bodies from the Ash.” His newest book, “Bodies from the Ice,” reveals how the melting of glaciers around the world has revealed hitherto undiscovered remains.
 
The most famous of these is Oetzi, the “Iceman” found in the Niederjoch Glacier between Austria and Italy in 1991. Erika and Helmut Simon came across his body, partly protruding from the ice, and assumed at first that it was the body of a fellow hiker. What they did not realize until scientists took a closer look was that the iceman was 5,300 years old.
 
Deem is a master at hooking readers with a gruesome discovery and then leading them step by step as scientists patiently uncover the extraordinary details of the people they find. Oetzi’s belongings – a longbow, a wooden backpack, shoes made of bark, deerskin and hay – along with radiocarbon testing revealed that his was the oldest body ever found in the ice. Not until ten years later were scientists able to determine that an arrow wound caused his death. 
 
Kids fascinated by Ardi, Lucy and other discoveries illuminating the six-million-year history of human evolution will be eager to visit the new Hall of Human Origins in the Natural History Museum in Washington, opening next March.
 

Originally published in the Free Lance-Star on October 27, 2009.