The actor chosen to play Chewbacca in the original Star Wars series was selected for one reason alone: He was 7 feet, 3 inches tall. Over time, the name Chewie has become synonymous with hairy folk with towering builds. The latest to earn the nickname is an ancient human whose 3.7-million-year-old footprints, just discovered in Tanzania, suggest that he was a Wookiee-like giant among his peers.
The footprints, discovered in Laetoli, suggest that the individual who made them was 5 feet and 4 inches tall. This height may not seem especially tall to us massive Sapiens, but for Australopithecus afarensis, the species that Chewie is thought to belong to, it is unprecedented as far as scientists know. The researchers behind the discovery, publishing their findings in the journal eLife, explain that they named the Australopithecus giant after the Wookiee when they realized what his huge feet said about his build.
At 27 centimeters long, Chewie’s footprints are about equivalent to a size 9 men’s shoe bought in the U.S, and the scientists estimate that he weighed about 105 pounds. His footsteps were found in tandem with those of one other Australopithecus individual, whose dimensions were more conventional for his species. These two are thought to be of the same species as Lucy, the notoriously old pre-human skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy, notably, was tiny; at 3 feet 5 inches tall, there’s no doubt she would have looked up at Chewie like some sort of massive alien.
Interpreting the differences in the sizes of Chewie and his counterpart has been controversial. Some scientists believe that they represent evidence that Australopithecus individuals of different sexes varied greatly in size — evolutionary biologists call this “sexual dimorphism” — and that in turn has fed into the theory that males of this species, like Chewie, tended to have harems of multiple smaller, female mates. The theory that early humans subscribed to polygynous, gorilla-style sexual behavior has been contested by other scientists who aren’t convinced that the smaller footprints next to Chewie’s necessarily belonged to a small mate. Arguing that the prints could very well have just belonged to a juvenile male, they assert that more evidence is needed before we can make any definitive judgments about their sex lives.
What we know for sure, however, is that Chewie was a giant among his peers — even among those whose footprints were discovered at the same site 40 years ago. However, whether or not he stayed faithful to a single person, like his namesake, remains to be determined.