LUCY: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald C. & Maitland A. Edey Johanson

LUCY: The Beginnings of Humankind

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Johanson's account of the tangled branches of our family tree is a wonderfully personal adventure as well as lucid paleoanthropology. You may not remember precisely where Hadar is, or how Ramapithecus fits into the grand scheme of things, but you will emerge with a feel for what's happening in the rapidly developing field of human evolution. Johanson prepares the reader for current events with a look back at earlier findings: the Neanderthal and Swanscombe fossils of a century ago; the Piltdown hoax; Dart's Taung baby in South Africa; the initial discoveries of the Leakeys at Olduvai. This is history with personalities and egos. (We are told who bitterly resented whom--and get to consider a few more candidates as perpetrators of the Piltdown affair.) But the drama lies in Johanson's first-hand accounts of fieldwork at Hadar, part of the Afar region in Ethiopia. It was here that he found Lucy, the most complete skeleton of a hominid ever discovered, a three-and-a-half-foot tall, small-brained female who could walk erect upwards of three-and-a-half million years ago. She is hominid, but not Homo, and in a field notorious for war between lumpers and splitters, Johanson and colleague Tim White agree to call her Australopithecus afarensis, a species ancestral to both the later australopithecines and to Homo. This declaration does not sit well with either Mary or Richard Leakey (who follow the Leakey tradition of pushing human origins further and further back); and here Johanson's self-analysis of his own biases and changes of heart (Tim White is both esteemed colleague and hearty disputant) makes an interesting exercise 'in the development of a scientist. Fascinating, too, are the explanations of new techniques of dating and analysis as fossils are surveyed, cleaned, and arrayed before' eyes so well trained that a single tooth can elicit a reasoned judgment of age, sex, genus, and species. There is a youthful vitality in Johanson's story, a combination of romantic fervor, gee whiz, inexperience, adventure, even danger (an Ethiopian official who signs the documents is shot to death the same day). WeaVing the threads of autobiography, history, politics, and scientific conjecture together is no mean trick, and Johanson and Edey are to be congratulated for producing an almost seamless garment. Altogether--exceptional.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0671724991
Publisher: Simon & Schuster