Fast-moving account of the author’s momentous discovery of the famous “Lucy” fossil.
Excavating in Ethiopia in 1974, Johanson (director, Institute of Human Origins/Arizona State Univ.; co-author: From Lucy to Language, 1996, etc.) found a 40-percent-complete fossil of a female hominid skeleton that proved to be 3.2 million years old. He dubbed it “Lucy,” after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” played repeatedly by members of his team while celebrating the find. More formally named Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy is widely regarded as a crucial evolutionary step between apes and humankind, and the story of her unearthing is well-told in the book’s first half with the help of Scientific American reporter Wong. Plentiful, well-chosen details convey the excitement and importance of the 1974 expedition and those that followed, as well as their frustrations. Descriptions of Ethiopia’s political upheavals and of the Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs’ byzantine bureaucracy remind us that an anthropological dig is a complicated international affair. Technical information, such as how potassium-argon fossil dating works, is provided in jargon-free prose that draws readers into the paleoanthropologist’s world. Among the welcome flashes of humor is Johanson’s visit to the set of the TV program NOVA, where he advises a rubber-suited actress on how Lucy would have moved. The second half of the book places Lucy in context by exploring links in the evolutionary chain before and after Australopithecus afarensis. It pays tribute to the work of other paleoanthropologists, from pioneers Louis and Mary Leakey to Johanson’s contemporaries. A chapter on archaeologist Michael Morwood’s recent discovery in Southeast Asia of so-called “hobbits”—fossilized skeletons of human ancestors scarcely more than three-feet tall—is especially engrossing.
An informative overview of paleontology and evolutionary concepts.