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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:
Exploration

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
Archaeology
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: 6 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

To a lay person, its 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: As I said, 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.


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.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Donald Johanson Interview Photo
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 thigh bone. In Lucy's case, it was about 90 percent the length of her thigh bone. 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.

That's not hard to understand. Why do you suppose she has so captured the public's imagination? It's getting clearer and clearer why she captured anthropologists' attention, but what about this unique set of bones is so compelling?


Donald Johanson: I think that all of us, at some stage in our lives, asked that question, 'Where did we come from?" We're satisfied with different answers at different stages of our lives. When we begin to look at our own personal lives and begin to trace our own ancestry back, we are lucky if we can go a few generations. But people are really intrigued with knowing something about the earliest origins of the human family. Knowing something about the conditions, the situation, what our ancestors looked like millions of years ago. There is a real thirst and desire amongst people to know something about origins. Origins of all sorts of things, but most importantly, origins of themselves. Lucy brought with her an image of our human ancestors that you don't get when you find a jaw or an arm bone or a leg bone. Here was 40 percent of a single skeleton. I suspect also popularizing her by giving her an affectionate name like Lucy was important because people can identify with that. If I meet someone on an airplane for example, and we get into a conversation talking about, "What do you do for a living?" and so on, and I say, "I'm an anthropologist." "What kind of anthropology do you do?" and I say, "Well, I look for fossil in East Africa, human ancestor fossils. And they say, "Oh, did you ever find anything?" When you say, "I found a fossil called Lucy," they immediately know. If you said, "I found a skull of Australopithecus afarensis," it really wouldn't be as attractive. But once you personalize it with a name, people identify with it immediately. So I think she is very visible because of her name and because of her completeness. She gives us a better picture of what these creatures looked like than anything that had ever been found before.


In a sense, I also feel that we've kind of all found a mom.

Donald Johanson: Well, when we think of our origins, we often think of "the mother of mankind." The "Eve hypothesis" of the emergence of modern humans has been talked about recently. There is a comfort that people have in identifying with a female image. That may be part of it.

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.

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
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.

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. 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.

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, my father's brothers and sister were still alive in Sweden.


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."

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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