Anatomy professor presents research on early human development at Corps of Discovery lecture

Professor Carol Ward lectured on her studies of Lucy, an early ancestor with several human characteristics.

During her presentation at Tuesday’ eighth annual 21st Century Corps Discovery Lecture, anatomy professor Carol Ward quoted geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to stress the importance of understanding human ancestry.

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Ward lectured about her research on human evolution and its meaning in relation to life today, focusing on Lucy, an ancestor that walked the earth 5 to 8 million years ago with human resemblances.

In her presentation, Ward said Lucy’s existence alters the accepted evolutionary timeline used by scientists. Lucy’s humanistic arched feet, curved spine and barrel-shaped ribcage, Ward said, contrast with her small skull indicating a less-developed brain. She said this indicates human ancestors could stand upright and walk before their brains developed to a more advanced level, compared to the previously accepted idea that increased brain function led to walking later on.

"When we see Lucy, one of the oldest ancestors on the family tree, we wonder how really ape-like she was,” she said. “If she had bones in the middle of her foot, Lucy would have walked that way. It’s not something recent, our ancestors walked the way we did.”

Ward said characteristics change and develop over time to help the species adapt to environmental changes and exposures.

“The bones of our foot are arched,” Ward said. “An arched foot gives you shock absorption, which you need when you’re bearing all your weight on two feet.”

Ward, who will travel to Kanapoi, Kenya in January to conduct further research, said the ancestral timeline is important because it explains how humans are able to function the way they do today. She said the human ability to communicate sets us apart from other species.

“Being social takes work,” she said. “You’ve got to figure out other individuals. Being social is the fundamental feature of human life. We spend a lot of time thinking about social things. It defines who we are.”

The presentation highlighted the importance of understanding ancestry in trying to improve the human condition today. Ward said the condition Spondylolysis, which develops from extending the spine repeatedly, can be traced back to Lucy as well.

“Just like all science, you never know when you’re going to gain insight that can affect life today,” she said.

Freshman Meg Renault-Varian, an anthropology student, said the lecture presented ideas she was previously unfamiliar with.

“It was really fascinating,” she said. “It was interesting how she could draw in findings from the past.”

Chancellor Brady Deaton, who introduced Ward at the lecture, said she represents innovation in her field that benefits the university as a whole.

“This is a mark or a brand of the University of Missouri that we feel very proud of,” he said. “The 21st Century for Discovery Annual Lecture features one of the most distinguished daily faculty who can commemorate the exploration of the Louis and Clark expedition that really lead to and inspired this university as the first public university west of the Mississippi River.”

Ward said she looks forward to continuing her studies on Lucy and human ancestry to build on what has been established so far.

“It’s all about going back to the fossil record,” she said. “That’s the starting point. For my next phase of discovery, that’s where I want to go. I don’t know where this trip of discovery will take us. I don’t know what we’ll find.”

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