Funny bones

Already known as the discoverer of some of the most remarkable fossils, Don Johanson proved Tuesday that he also has a knack for finding the funny bone.

Johanson had the audience chuckling throughout his speech titled “Searching for Our Old Ancestors.” The near-capacity crowd in the University Lecture Hall gained insight, and laughter, from the man best known for his 1974 discovery of a 3.4-million-year-old, ape-like fossil dubbed “Lucy.”

“With a whole bunch of dry bones, for an hour and 10 minutes – much longer than I should have talked – you need a little levity to help the audience through the evening,” Johanson said following the lecture.

Johanson earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1974, the same year of his most famous discovery, after the approval of his dissertation on chimpanzee teeth. But one member of the approval board was not very impressed.

“At the end of the dissertation, he said to me, ‘What are you going to do now, Don?'” Johanson said. “I said, ‘I’m going to go to Africa and find something.'”

After unearthing Lucy, a 40-percent complete skeleton, Johanson sent a postcard to the professor with this curt message: “Found something.”

Johanson, who teaches at Arizona State University, said scientists have proffered many theories about Lucy, but one mystery remains: “That’s the big question we haven’t solved yet: Could Lucy have golfed?”

Using slides of drawings and photographs, Johanson showed the evolution of humans from quadripedal, ape-like animals to erect-walking Homo sapiens, even going down on all fours to illustrate his point. He said the earliest human ancestors had brains 400 cubic centimeters in size, or “1/3 the size of the average USF student.”

Lucy was found in Hadar, Ethiopia, part of the fossil-rich Afar triangle, and Johanson emphasized that Africa is the birthplace of humankind, a theory first developed by his hero, Charles Darwin.

“No matter where you grab the branches on a tree, the roots lead back to Africa,” he said.

Johanson used that fact to poke fun at the fact that humans in evolutionary charts are always portrayed as white, European males.

Although humans and chimpanzees are clearly not of the same species, Johanson pointed out some of the similarities between them, especially the 98.5-99 percent similarity between chimpanzee and human DNA. That is the basis of the belief that they are derived from a common ancestor, he said.

To bolster his claim, Johanson unveiled a slide with five pictures of President George W. Bush alongside pictures of chimpanzees showing similar facial expressions.

Once the laughter died down, Johanson moved on to pictures from the field: fossilized pig mandibles and jaws of leaf-eating monkeys, as well as human and hippopotamus molars.

But Johanson saved his prize find for last – Lucy, named for the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that played the night of the discovery. While showing a picture of the skeleton, Johanson said Lucy was only 3 feet tall, had a brain the size of a softball and walked bipedally – the oldest bipedal ape-like creature, or hominid, found up to that point. He said she was a hominid in transition from an arboreal lifestyle.

Johanson said Lucy has become a reference point for the dating of all other fossils.

“She’s become the touchstone by which other fossils are judged,” he said.

Lucy has had impacts beyond the fields of paleontology and anthropology. Johanson said Lucy has become a Jeopardy! question and a crossword puzzle clue, and the Hadar region has been honored on postage stamps. Lucy has lent her name to bars, restaurants and a national soccer tournament – even a typing school – and Ethiopia has adopted the name “The Cradle of Humanity.”

“So she’s (Lucy’s) a part of our vernacular,” Johanson said. “She’s also a source of tremendous pride for the Ethiopian people.”

Johanson ended the lecture with a word of warning for his fellow man.

“We’re going to have to reinvent a reverence for the natural world and make the right choices,” he said.

The lecture was three years in the making, said James Austin, president for the Anthropology Club.

“Very fluent speaker. He knows how to address an audience really well,” Austin said.

Anne Justice, club treasurer and a physical anthropology major, said the talk was a dream come true.

“He’s a person you read about from the first anthropology class you take through the rest of your career – someone whose work you’ll always reference if you’re a physical anthropologist,” Justice said.

Johanson said the theory of evolution is not a threat to religious beliefs.

“I try to address the fact that people who are very religious see the world through a construct that is essentially based on belief,” he said.

“And what we’re trying to do is to explain the origins of humans through scientific observation. Some people reconcile them very easily. Some people are deeply religious and still understand that evolutionary change is the process by which we got here. So I certainly in no way want to see it as something that should threaten anyone’s faith.”

Johanson returned from Ethiopia in December and plans to go back in July and November. Lucy is safely tucked away there in the National Museum in Addis Ababa, the capital.

“She’s happy at home. She doesn’t like to travel,” Johanson said.

Contact Khari Williamsat