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Fifty years ago, paleoanthropologists discovered 3.2-million-year-old fossils of the genus Australopithecus afarensis. Christened ‘Lucy,’ the remains of the female hominin have solved some riddles about human evolution.

To Kennesaw State University philosopher Stacy Keltner, one of the most interesting developments has been shifts in our understanding of how Lucy may have appeared. Most popular renderings dress her in thick, reddish-brown fur, with her face, hands, feet and breasts peeking out of denser thickets.

However, it turns out that Lucy may not have had much hair at all. Humans didn’t don clothing until roughly 83,000 to 170,000 years ago. For millions of years, humans and their direct ancestors roamed the Earth without coverings, relatively hairless – and it was no big deal.

So how did clothing become mandatory? And why do so many depictions of our early ancestors default to blanketing them in thick fur?

“The modern quest to visualize our distant ancestors has been critiqued as a sort of ‘erotic fantasy science,’ in which scientists attempt to fill in the blanks of the past based on their own assumptions about women, men and their relationships to one another,” Keltner writes.

The way Lucy has been depicted in newspapers, textbooks and museums may ultimately reveal more about us – our desire to police sexuality, our urge to control women – than it says about her.

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Nick Lehr

Arts + Culture Editor

Popular renderings of Lucy tend to dress her in thick, reddish-brown fur. Dave Einsel/Getty Images

What the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy fossil reveals about nudity and shame

Stacy Keltner, Kennesaw State University

The way Lucy has been depicted in newspapers, textbooks and museums shows how today’s cultural norms influence perceptions of the past.

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