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If you like Donald Johanson's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donald Johanson in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Institute of Human Origins

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Donald Johanson
Donald Johanson
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Donald Johanson Interview (page: 5 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

Even when you're in the upper echelons of academia and science, you are still dealing with petty jealousies. I guess you really have to form a thick skin, don't you?

Donald Johanson: You do. There are always going to be people who are envious of what you have done. All you can do is hope that by showing them what you are doing, and why you are doing it, and inviting them in to be a part of it, that they will change their minds, and they will see that there is an important role to be played by everyone who is interested in this particular subject, whatever subject it might be.

Do you want to talk a little bit about the Leakeys?

Donald Johanson: Unfortunately this is one of the friendships which has dissolved over the last 15 years. It's very unfortunate for our personal relationship, and it's very unfortunate for the field, because we have seen different camps develop. You know, "Are you in the Leakey camp, or are you in the Johanson camp, or are you in somebody else's camp?" I have always encouraged people within my research group to have their own ideas. There are people here at the Institute of Human Origins, who disagree with various aspects of the way I interpret fossils. But I think that is extremely healthy for science. It's unfortunate that the dissolution of our friendship has resulted in the establishment of different camps.

Let's go back to that amazing discovery of Lucy. First of all, how and when did you realize what you had found?

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 her.

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.

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 Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: A field expedition, like the ones we've led to Hadar, are international endeavors with specialists from all kinds of field. 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.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 14:25 EDT