He found her in an African valley.
And after returning to camp with one of the most remarkable fossil finds ever, Don Johanson and his colleagues celebrated while the Beatles tune “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” filled the air.
Tonight at 7 in the University Lecture Hall, Johanson will speak about his famous fossil, dubbed “Lucy,” and other discoveries as part of the University Lecture Series.
“He’s a major figure in paleoanthropology, and he’s made significant contributions,” said David Himmelgreen, assistant professor for the USF Department of Anthropology. “He’s one of the few that the recognition goes beyond just within the discipline. It goes to the general public. It’s always a great thing when you get a person like that.”
Johanson earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1974, the same year he found Lucy in Hadar, Ethiopia. Lucy is a 3.4 million-year old fossil belonging to a group of creatures known as Australopithecines – ape-like, erect-walking creatures.
“That is, in terms of brain size and presumed intellect, similar to chimpanzees, but having a distinctly different adaptation in that the bipedalism was important for acquiring food and other kinds of things,” said Robert Tykot, associate professor in the department and director for the Laboratory for Archaeological Science.
“And since among modern living creatures, humans are the only ones who are bipedal, we often look to Lucy or similar kinds of creatures as long-ago ancestors.”
Lucy is a gem among fossils because it is a 40 percent complete skeleton – most fossils are mere fragments – and at the time, it was the oldest Australopithecine ever found.
“They’re significant in that they’re very, very rare finds,” Himmelgreen said. “It’s literally a needle in a haystack, and you’re really very lucky to find these fragments, basically, that provide us evidence of early hominid evolution.”
Johanson shot to fame following his discovery and later returned to Hadar to unearth more fossils. Besides publishing several books, including Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Johanson, now based at Arizona State University, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Himmelgreen said apart from the science behind Johanson’s work, there is a larger message to be learned from it.
“In light of everything that’s going on today, in terms of the strife between so many groups of people over so many different issues, this kind of work is very important because it shows our roots and how interconnected we are and that we come from a very small group of individuals … there’s much more similarity than dissimilarity,” he said.
Tykot said he expects a lecture tailored for more than just anthropology students. He said everyone, including those who oppose evolution because of religious reasons, should attend.
“For starters, I’m sure that there are those people who feel it’s somehow against their religious beliefs – that humans could not have ancestors dating to three million years ago, when in fact most religions, including Catholics and Protestants and all of the major world religions, accept evolution,” Tykot said. “It has nothing to do with whether God or a group of all-powerful beings set things in motion millions or more years ago, and so I think it’s important to look at the scientific process.”
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