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‘Lucy’ discoverer

September 13th, 2011 · No Comments

‘Lucy’ discoverer: Why I study human evolution
By DONALD C. JOHANSON – CNN
Added: Monday, 12 September 2011 at 10:25 PM
http://richarddawkins.net/articles/643070-lucy-discoverer-why-i-study-human-evolution
Article also has a video interview with Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson

My deep commitment to understand the origins of humankind was ignited when I read Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1863 book “Man’s Place in Nature.” The core idea that gripped my teenage mind was the suggestion that humans and African apes shared a common ancestor that roamed Africa millions of years ago.

I was riveted by the 1959 discovery of a 1.8 million-year-old skull at Olduvai Gorge and I knew that I wanted to travel to Africa and join the search for our ancestors. The allure of conducting fieldwork in remote unexplored regions of Africa dominated my thoughts throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies.

In 1970, Professor F. Clark Howell at the University of Chicago invited me to join his expedition to the remote Omo region of southern Ethiopia. From the moment I set foot on African soil I knew my life would be filled with adventure and hopefully discovery. The thrill of field research surpassed my dreams. Every day I collected fossil remains of pigs, elephants, hippos, monkeys, gazelles, and other creatures. These discoveries were revealing the past world in which we evolved.

After three summers of not finding a scrap of human bone, my resolve was beginning to wane. But in 1973 I signed on as co-director of an expedition to the remote and poorly explored Afar region of Ethiopia. Here vast fossil fields offered unparalleled opportunity and I was convinced that this is where I would find hominid fossils. On that very first expedition to a place locally known as Hadar I found a 3.4 Million Years Ago fossil hominid knee joint. Extensive study of the bones revealed that in virtually every detail the knee was identical to ours. This creature had walked upright and therefore deserved a place on the human family tree.

On my eager return to Hadar in the fall of 1974 the major goal was to find fossils complete enough to identify the species that had walked with that knee. Almost immediately we found teeth and jaws of roughly the same antiquity as the knee. The anatomy of these specimens was more ape-like than any that had been previously found in Africa. Darwin and Huxley would have been elated had they been alive to see the finds.

On November 24, 1974, a hot Sunday morning I was completing a routine mapping exercise and I spotted a three-inch long bone fragment that would change my life. As I kneeled down to more closely inspect the anatomy of the fragment I knew instantly it was part of a hominid elbow.

Looking around to see if more of this individual was there I saw a chunk of lower jaw, a shard of skull, a fragment of a vertebra and ribs. Each specimen was unquestionably hominid and I knew it was a partial skeleton of a human ancestor that had lain in suspended animation for 3.2 million years and had been exposed by rain erosion.

This was childhood dream come true and I knew my life would dramatically change. The bones were diminutive, probably a female and sometime during the evening celebration the skeleton was christened Lucy (after Beatles’ song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”).

Tags: Evolution

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