All achievers

Donald C. Johanson, Ph.D.

Discoverer of Lucy

If we succeeded, I knew that there would be a downside to it. And the downside was that I upset the apple cart. But I've always felt that risk-taking is an important part of what it means to be a human being.

Donald C. Johanson was born in Chicago, Illinois. Although his parents were Swedish immigrants with little education, his father, a barber, supported the family in relative comfort. All that changed when Johanson was two. His father died, leaving the family without any means of support. Johanson’s mother worked as a cleaning lady to support them in far more modest circumstances, but always encouraged Johanson to study and prepare himself for a rewarding career.

1972: French anthropologist and the director of the Hadar expedition, Yves Coppens, with Donald Johanson.
1972: French anthropologist and the director of the Hadar expedition, Yves Coppens, with Donald C. Johanson.

Although Johanson did poorly on the Standardized Aptitude Test, an anthropologist neighbor encouraged him in his ambitions to become a scientist, and he was accepted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was determined to become an anthropologist and specialize in the study of human origins. Since one of the leading scholars in the field, Clark Howell, was at the University of Chicago, Johanson wrote to him and arranged a meeting. With Howell’s support, Johanson transferred to the University of Chicago, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1966. He went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. at the same institution.

Donald Johanson (left) assembles the Lucy skeleton for the first time with French colleague Maurice Taieb. (Courtesy Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University)
1974: Donald Johanson assembles the Lucy skeleton for the first time with French colleague Maurice Taieb. (ASU)

As a professor of anthropology, his career took him from Case Western University, to Kent State, to Stanford, but his reputation is based on his archaeological work in the field, which began while he was still an undergraduate. His first trip to Africa came in 1970; he has participated in expeditions in South Africa, Tanzania and, most famously, Ethiopia.

Donald Johanson with the Lucy skeleton.
Donald Johanson with the Lucy skeleton, the discovery that changed our understanding of human origins forever.

It was at the Hadar site, in the Afar region of Ethiopia that Johanson made the discovery that changed our understanding of human origins forever. There, in 1974, he found the fossilized remains of a female hominid the world came to know as Lucy. Until then, paleoanthropologists had had to content themselves with the most fragmentary remnants of our pre-human ancestors. Over 40 percent of the Lucy skeleton had been preserved, enough to provide the anthropological world with some startling insights. The previously accepted account of human evolution had proposed that a strain of primates with larger brains evolved, became capable of making tools, and began walking upright to free up their hands. But, from all appearances, Lucy and the other hominids whose remains were found at the site were walking upright, although their brains were barely larger than those of the chimpanzee. No stone tools, not even fragments, have survived at the stratum where Lucy and her contemporaries were found. From this, it may be inferred that our ancestors walked upright for another reason. They may have used their hands to carry food gathered for their offspring, and engaged in more elaborate cooperative behavior than one finds among creatures who walk on all fours.

A sculptor's rendering of Lucy when she was alive, displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas. (Dave Einsel/Getty Images)
A sculptor’s rendering of Lucy when she was alive, displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas.

At first, many scholars believed these remains were specimens of a previously identified species, Australopithecus africanus, but after years of studying the staggering assortment of fossils found at the Hadar site, Johanson came to another conclusion. In 1978, he shocked the scientific community with an assertion that the remains belonged to another distinct species, which he named Australopithecus afarensis.

"Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind" by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson. When Donald Johanson found a partial skeleton, approximately 3.5 million years old, in a remote region of Ethiopia in 1974, a headline-making controversy was launched that continues on today. Bursting with all the suspense and intrigue of a fast-paced adventure novel, here is Johanson’s lively account of the extraordinary discovery of “Lucy.” By expounding the controversial change Lucy makes in our view of human origins, Johanson provides a vivid, behind-the-scenes account of the history of pealeoanthropology and the colorful, eccentric characters who were and are a part of it.
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson. When Donald Johanson found a partial skeleton, approximately 3.5 million years old, in a remote region of Ethiopia in 1974, a headline-making controversy was launched that continues on today. Bursting with all the suspense and intrigue of a fast-paced adventure novel, here is Johanson’s lively account of the extraordinary discovery of “Lucy.” By expounding the controversial change Lucy makes in our view of human origins, Johanson provides a vivid, behind-the-scenes account of the history of paleoanthropology and the colorful, eccentric characters who were and are a part of it.

Throughout the 1980s, the turbulent political situation in Ethiopia barred Johanson and his colleagues from returning to the site. In 1990, the fossil hunters were allowed to return, and by 1992 had found a large portion of an afarensis skull. The reconstruction of the head silenced most of Johanson’s critics, and afarensis is now widely recognized as the ancestor of both Australopithecus africanus and modern man, Homo sapiens. Books Johanson has co-authored include: Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind; Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution; Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor; Journey From the Dawn: Life With the World’s First Family; Ancestors: In Search of Human OriginsFrom Lucy to Language and Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins. Since 1980, Johanson has participated in the production of more than one documentary series for Public Television. He appeared as the on-screen host of a 13-part series for Nature in 1982, and for the Nova series in 1994.

Donald C. Johanson is the director of the Institute of Human Origins.
2015: Donald C. Johanson is the Founding Director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.

Today, Donald Johanson is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University as well as the Founding Director of the Institute of Human Origins. He divides his time between his homes in San Francisco and Tempe, Arizona.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1976

When he was in high school, Donald Johanson was told by his guidance counselor to forget about going to college. The only son of a widowed immigrant mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Johanson had done so poorly on his SATs that the counselor did not believe he was capable of performing college-level work.

Johanson ignored the counselor’s advice, pursued higher education, and received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago. Within a year of earning his doctorate, he made news around the world with a discovery that dramatically altered our understanding of human evolution. The fossilized bones of a creature Johanson called “Lucy” constitute the oldest, most complete specimen of an extinct species which was not human, but from which the human race may be descended.

While Johanson’s interpretation of his discoveries has provoked controversy in scientific circles, Johanson has become one of the dominant figures in the world of paleoanthropology, and his books and television appearances have given a mass audience a tantalizing glimpse of the mysterious origin of our species.

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Let’s talk about the amazing discovery of Lucy. First of all, how and when did you realize what you had found?

Hadar, where the Lucy fossils were found. (Institute of Human Origins, Nanci Kahn)
Hadar, in Ethiopia’s Afar Region, where the Lucy fossils were discovered by Donald C. Johanson in 1974. (N. Kahn)

Donald Johanson: When I found Lucy in 1974, I was walking in a very desolate, remote part of Ethiopia known as Hadar. At the Hadar site we had found fossilized remains of all kinds of animals. Elephants, rhinos, gazelles, monkeys, and so on. But our main goal, of course, was to find as many human ancestor fossils as we could. We had found some things in 1973 that titillated us and alerted us to the fact that these geological deposits would, in fact, have human ancestor fossils. On this November morning, it was about noon, I was heading back to my Land Rover to drive back to camp. And I happened to look over my right shoulder. And as I did so, I saw a fragment of a bone which I recognized as coming from the elbow region in a skeleton, and that it was too small to be anything but one of these hominids. And the anatomy was right. And almost instantaneously, I was with a student of mine at that time, Tom Gray, we realized that there were fragments of her, of this skeleton, that were distributed along a slope. There was a piece of a leg, there was a piece of a pelvis, there was a piece of a jaw, there was a piece of a skull. And I realized almost instantaneously that we had part of a skeleton. Normally, we are happy to find a fragment of jaw, a few isolated teeth, a bit of an arm, a bit of a skull. But to find associated body parts is extremely rare. I realized that no matter what it was, even if it was from a creature that we already knew about, another kind of human ancestor that had already been studied and named and so on, it was going to be important because so few discoveries had arms associated with legs, bits of skull associated with a pelvis. I realized immediately that this was a terribly important find, a terribly important discovery, but I didn’t realize at the moment how important it would be until we had spent a lot of time in the laboratory studying it.

1974: ASU paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson with the Lucy skeleton in the field.
November 1974: Paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson with the Lucy skeleton in the field at Hadar in Ethiopia.

How did you feel that day?

Donald Johanson: Looking at my diaries and reading what I’ve written in more popular books, I am reminded of the fact that it was a moment of just absolute exhilaration. This was the most important discovery I had ever made in my life. It was a discovery which has irrevocably changed my whole life’s direction. It immediately elevated me to the status of one of the world’s important and leading anthropologists. I felt a moment of tremendous achievement, tremendous success. I knew that this was an important key to becoming recognized as an important anthropologist. Particularly because that year, my National Science Foundation grant was just running out. When I applied for my first grant to do field research, it was turned down initially by the National Science Foundation, because I didn’t have my doctorate degree, the Ph.D. And I had really very little field experience. People wondered, “Who is this guy who’s making all these claims that IF he is given the money, IF he is given the opportunity to go there, he is going to make major discoveries?” This was a vindication of a tremendous risk that I took in putting all of this in writing. I knew that that was extremely important to my professional career. I also knew it was going to open up doors for me that to that point had been closed, but I didn’t really know that some of those doors I’d wish had remained closed. It also elevated me in the public eye, also. All of a sudden, even though I had spent all of my academic years training to be a scientist, I now had to become an effective communicator to the public about the importance and excitement of these discoveries.

The remains of an adult female Australopithecus afarensis, known to all the world as "Lucy." With a mixture of ape and human features — including long dangling arms, but pelvic, spine, foot, and leg bones suited to walking upright — slender Lucy stood three-and-a-half feet (107 centimeters) tall. (© Institute of Human Origins)
The remains of an adult female Australopithecus afarensis, known to all the world as Lucy. With a mixture of ape and human features — including long dangling arms, but pelvic, spine, foot, and leg bones suited to walking upright — slender Lucy stood three-and-a-half feet (107 centimeters) tall. (ASU, The Institute of Human Origins)

You also lost some privacy. What was the atmosphere like in that camp? Were you having a great time? Or was it very intense scholarly research? Was there camaraderie?

Donald Johanson: A field expedition, like the ones we’ve led to Hadar, are international endeavors with specialists from all kinds of fields. There are people who are interested in horse evolution, people who are interested in hippo evolution, people who are interested in the stratigraphy and geology, people who are collecting samples for dating, so we can establish the age of the site, and so on. There is a great deal of science which goes on in an expedition like this, and you are doing it the whole time you are there. The first thing that happens in the morning is you make decisions about where certain teams will go, what kinds of work they will do. You come back at lunch, discuss details of discoveries that you made, or problems that you encountered, and develop new strategies to attack various issues that are facing you. Work in the afternoon in the geology or paleontology tent, working on your discoveries, cleaning fossils, identifying them, cataloguing, and so on.

But there is also an opportunity for enjoying oneself in the field. At dinner, for example, sitting around after dinner and telling stories, listening to music and so on. Of course, everyone shares in the excitement of discovery.

When Lucy was found, the camp really, literally went wild. When we drove into camp, my student was honking the horn of the Land Rover, and they knew something was up right away. So everyone, even though they weren’t specialists in anthropology, people who might have been doing something in geology or paleontology, came running up, saying, “What did you find?” And I’ll never forget, this student said, “We found the whole damn thing!” They said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “We found a skeleton!” That was just like some sort of elixir that infected everyone. The whole camp was immediately brought up and excited. We all drove out to the site and stood around and looked at the bones that were on the slope, and developed a strategy for what to do. That night, when we were in camp, that’s all we could talk about, was the discovery of this specimen. And, you know, “What do you think it is, Don? Do you think it’s a male or a female?” I thought it was a female because of the small size. And we were listening to Beatles tapes. I have been, still am, a great Beatles fan. One of the songs that was playing was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And we thought that instead of calling her, “the partial Australopithecus skeleton from locality 288″ that she needed some name. Something that would be easier to refer to her. And I jokingly said, “Why don’t we call her Lucy?” And little did I know that that would catch on. Once that name was uttered, once it was associated with the skeleton, there was no way to erase it. The next morning at breakfast, my students would say to me, “When are we going to the Lucy site? Do you think we will find more of Lucy’s skull? Do you think we will be able to get the rest of Lucy’s leg?” She developed right from the outset, you could see inklings of a personality, that she was becoming more than just a bunch of dry old bones that were collected in this remote part of the world. She, herself, was being identified as a very important element in our understanding of human origins. The excitement was quite extraordinary, and involved everyone, not just the person who found her, but everyone who worked on the expedition.

1974: Donald Johanson and Tom Gray at Hadar. Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray on November 24, 1974, at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia. They had taken a Land Rover out that day to map in another locality. After a long, hot morning of mapping and surveying for fossils, they decided to head back to the vehicle. Johanson suggested taking an alternate route back to the Land Rover, through a nearby gully. Within moments, he spotted a right proximal ulna (forearm bone) and quickly identified it as a hominid. Shortly thereafter, he saw an occipital (skull) bone, then a femur, some ribs, a pelvis, and the lower jaw. Two weeks later, after many hours of excavation, screening, and sorting, several hundred fragments of bone had been recovered, representing 40 percent of a single hominid skeleton. (Courtesy Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University)
1974: Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray on November 24, 1974 at the site of Hadar in Ethiopia. They had taken a Land Rover out that day to map in another locality. After a long, hot morning of mapping and surveying for fossils, they decided to head back to the vehicle. Johanson suggested taking an alternate route back to the Land Rover, through a nearby gully. Within moments, he spotted a right proximal ulna (forearm bone) and quickly identified it as a hominid. Shortly thereafter, he saw an occipital (skull) bone, then a femur, some ribs, a pelvis, and the lower jaw. Two weeks later, after many hours of excavation, screening, and sorting, several hundred fragments of bone had been recovered, representing 40 percent of a single hominid skeleton. (ASU)

To a layperson, it’s something of a miracle that you could see some stray bones on a slope and A, know that they were human, B, know that they were connected to the same body. How did you know they were part of one person, and how did you determine that these were the oldest bones of such a creature ever found?

Donald Johanson: Any endeavor like this is really multi-disciplinary. It takes the dedicated effort of a group of specialists to understand the meaning of a fossil like this. It’s not enough to make the discovery, but to understand that discovery in terms of the geological setting in which it is found, where she sits in the time scale of human evolution, and how to interpret the specimen.

Keys to success — Preparation

We are very carefully trained, as students in anthropology, in human anatomy. In fact, in the anatomy of a diverse set of animals. So that we learn the diagnostic features of teeth, and jaws, and various bones of the body. For example, when we are in the field, we are constantly looking at the surface of the ground for fossils which have eroded out of these ancient deposits. You can make decisions right away as to whether or not it’s an antelope or a baboon or a carnivore, or whatever. Because each one has its own diagnostic anatomy. And it’s something we spend a lot of time doing in school, training to identify these various things. And then of course going into the field and applying it, and even expanding our understanding of anatomical variation more, even more than we did in graduate school.

Knowing that she represented a single individual was very important, if you are going to make decisions about her anatomy. What are the relationships between upper and lower limbs? Her arms are relatively long, compared to her lower limbs. Our upper arm bone is only about 70 percent the length of our thighbone. In Lucy’s case, it was about 90 percent the length of her thighbone. Which meant she had relatively long arms. Which she probably inherited from her ancestors who lived in trees. If it’s more than one individual, you might be confusing the arms and legs of different individuals. In this case, there was no duplication of body parts. There weren’t two right arms, or two left legs, or two fragments of a left jaw. There was only one of each. Also, the bone is all of the same fossilization or color, so we were able to make the decision that it belonged to a single specimen.

Donald Johanson with "Lucy." (© Institute of Human Origins. Nanci Kahn)
Donald Johanson with Lucy, which was a revolutionary step in understanding our human origins. (Nancy Kahn)

When you happened to look over your shoulder and see this fossil, how soon was it, in terms of minutes and hours, before you knew that she was one person, and that she would revolutionize anthropology?

Donald Johanson: We knew within five minutes that this was an important discovery, that there was a lot of a single skeleton here. The explosion was instantaneous. But there was a question in our minds: Do these body parts represent more than one individual? And if they do, how are we going to sort them out? So many questions depend on what bones go with what bones. As we were collecting her over the next several weeks, we realized that there was only one individual. But it really wasn’t until three to four years later, when we had an opportunity in the lab to make very detailed observations, and comparisons with other fossil discoveries, that we realized she was a new species of human ancestor.

When I realized, in 1978, that Lucy did represent a new species of human ancestor, and that I had an opportunity to name this new species, I realized this was a revolutionary step in understanding human origins. It brought with it a tremendous amount of responsibility, because I had to be correct. If I made a mistake at this point, and someone came along and proved me to be wrong, I would lose tremendous respect from my colleagues. This was taking a tremendous risk.

An artist's conception shows human ancestors from a long-extinct species called Australopithecus afarensis. The first specimen of the species, known as Lucy, was discovered 40 years ago. (Michael Hagelberg/ASU Research Magazine)
An artist’s conception shows human ancestors from a long-extinct species called Australopithecus afarensis. The first specimen of the species, known as Lucy, was discovered more than 40 years ago. (ASU Research Magazine)

I worked very hard with a number of scientific colleagues, particularly Tim White. The two of us made this decision that Lucy and other fossils which we found in Ethiopia represented a very distinct and different species of Australopithecus — a species which was more primitive, more generalized, than any other species of Australopithecus that had ever been found. We named it Australopithecus afarensis, after the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Not only did it have important implications for the number of species in the fossil record, but the next step was even scarier. If that’s true, then it’s going to strongly influence the way we view the family tree. For example, here was a creature that we felt was fully upright, bipedal, walking on two legs, that had a brain that was the size of a chimpanzee. This was really as close to “the ape that stood up” as anything that anyone had ever found. And there have been many people who have suggested that our ancestors stood up so that we could use our hands to make and use tools. Yet we hadn’t found a single stone tool, and never have, in those deposits. I knew it was going to generate a whole new series of controversies about our ancestors. And I felt that this was a tremendous responsibility.

1996: "From Lucy to Language" by Donald Johanson and Blake Edgar.
1996: From Lucy to Language, by Donald Johanson and Blake Edgar, presenting the evidence for human evolution.

So it was an electric time in my life. At that point I was invited to Sweden, which had also important emotional implications to me, because my mother and father were born and raised in Sweden, so I had a very strong tie to Sweden. My father’s brothers and sister were still alive in Sweden.

Keys to success — Courage

I had an invitation to go to Sweden to participate in a Nobel symposium. And I decided this was the venue, this was the place, where I wanted to announce the new species. And I thought how substantial an impact this is going to have, and I went to this Nobel symposium, and there were very few people at the symposium who knew it was going to be announced. There were only two or three people in the audience who knew that it was going to be a new species. When I made the announcement, you could hear a pin drop in the room. I mean, here was assembled 15 of the world’s specialists in human evolutionary studies. Richard Leakey was there, Mary Leakey was there, a whole host of people, from prestigious universities, who were published widely, and here I was — 1978 — I was at that time a young scholar, 35 years old, making this announcement. And furthermore, I presented a new view of how the family tree looked. I thought that this was going to generate enormous discussion. I finished my paper, and there was a question-and-answer period, and nobody asked a question. They broke for tea, people left the room, and only one scientist came up to me afterwards, and said, “It’s unbelievable.” They were so taken aback by this that they didn’t even want to discuss it. During the week’s discussion, whenever people would start debating a family tree, I would say, “What about my family tree? What about what I’m suggesting?” Some people deliberately tried to ignore it and not consider it because it really upset their views of human evolution. They found it very difficult to subsume that into their view of human origins. So this was a high-risk time in my life. We keep going back to the strength which I had throughout my career. I must admit it was one of the times when I really had to dig deep, take a deep breath, and say, “I believe I’m right. I believe that I will be vindicated. Lucy will be accepted as Australopithecus afarensis, and she will alter everyone’s views of how we got here.”

Tim White, Richard Leakey, Bernard Wood and Donald Johanson examine Johanson's newly discovered Australopithecus fossils at the National Museum of Kenya. (© 1976 David L. Brill, Brill Atlanta)
1976: Internationally renowned paleoanthropologists Tim White, Richard Leakey, Bernard Wood and Donald Johanson examine Johanson’s newly discovered Australopithecus fossils at the National Museum of Kenya.

Did the doubts of your colleagues cause you to have doubts about yourself? Was there ever a time when you wondered, “Have I gotten way off the track here? Am I barking up the wrong tree?”

Donald Johanson: My test to that question came before I announced her. Scientists are very afraid of being proven wrong. Some people who have held onto a particular view, whatever it is, and have had to change that on the basis of new evidence, have been reluctant to do so, because they feel very vulnerable. How could I be proven wrong? When we first made these discoveries in Ethiopia, I interpreted the collection of hundreds of fossil specimens as representing two different kinds of human ancestors: a larger form of human ancestor, which led more to modern humans; and the Australopithecus line, that was a side branch.

May 7, 2011: Famed paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey convened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to discuss human origins. It is the first time Leakey and Johanson —longtime rivals — have shared a stage since a public falling out in 1981. (Frank L. Kollman)
2011: Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey at the American Museum of Natural History to discuss human origins. It is the first time Leakey and Johanson — longtime rivals — have shared a stage since a public falling out in 1981.
Keys to success — Integrity

I suggested in the first paper I published that there were at least two different kinds of hominids at this site. And I very soon thereafter began an extensive period of research with my colleague Tim White. And I remember the nights of argument in the laboratory in Cleveland, when we would literally be screaming at each other. Because he said: “There is only one species here. The big ones are males, the little ones are females. And if you lay them all out on the table, you have a gradual change from small, to larger, to larger, to largest. And there’s no significant anatomical difference between the individuals in this collection. It represents only a single species, and the sooner you recognize that, the better off you are going to be.” He was very forceful in his arguments. And I would go home and think about it, and go back the next morning and take out the jaws and see if I could establish a series of features that would vindicate me, and substantiate my view that there were two species. And, slowly this idea was eroded away, and I had to admit that what I had published was wrong. It was incorrect. I had made a mistake.