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In Search of Lucy
Interview > Natia Khuluzauri
Donald Carl Johanson is the famous American paleoanthropologist known for his expedition to Hadar, Ethiopia
in1974 with archeologist Tom Gray. He discovered the remains of a human ancestor dated at 3.2 million years ago,
and classified as Australopithecus afarensis. The remains later became known as “Lucy”. In 1981 Johanson wrote a
popular scientific book by the same title, thus defining the future profession of many young readers.
Professor Johanson visited Georgia to participate in the international Senckenberg conference “100+25 Years of
Homo erectus: Dmanisi and Beyond” in September 2016, where he gave a public lecture. We were honored to
interview Professor Johanson at that time.

Prof. Johanson, what can you tell apes and humans and decided the ear- when I found Lucy in 1974 it was an in-
us about your bestseller, “Lucy”, that liest human, the most ancient human credible moment for me! It was really
has impacted the choice of profession would be found in Africa. And to me – I the defining moment of my career as
of so many youngsters interested in was 13 years old – this idea just explo- an anthropologist. That single moment
sciences since the 1980s? What inspi- ded in my head! I decided I wanted to be when I found the first bone changed my
red you to become a paleoanthropo- part of that search and to look for those life entirely!
logist? ancestors that would tell us something
about our origins. The idea that we sha- Can you remember how you felt
Of course I'm very happy and pleased red a common ancestor with the African when you realized that you were hol-
to be so rewarded that my book, Lucy, apes was fascinating to me. ding the bone of a human ancestor?
published many years ago in 1981, has
been an inspiration to the younger ge- In the beginning of your career did Well, of course the moment I recogni-
nerations who are following in my foots- you expect that you would find some- zed the bone as coming from a human
teps, and have this fascination about thing of this importance? ancestor I had a big smile; I was emo-
paleoanthropology, the study of human tionally very excited, and I didn't realize
origins. I was very fortunate as a young There have been so many anthropo- then, until I looked up the slope, on the
boy growing up in America when a pro- logists who have traveled to Africa or side of the hill, that there were other pie-
fessor who lived close to my house sho- to Asia hoping to make a discovery. It is ces of the skeleton! And when I saw tho-
wed me a book written by Thomas Henry very rare to make a major discovery like se pieces of a skeleton, I thought: This
Huxley, published in the late 1800s. Hu- Lucy. I never dreamed that I would find is part of a skeleton, it’s part of one in-
xley was a close friend of Darwin’s and something so important. I wanted to be dividual! And I did not know who it was
they talked a great deal. They talked very a part of this search, and of course I wan- – she is now a species of human, called
often about the idea of evolution and if ted to find something, but for the first Australopithecus afarensis – but I did not
humans also evolved. At that time they three years in Africa I found nothing. So, know how important it would be for the
saw the close similarity between African it took a while to get used to that, and science of paleoanthropology. I didn't

Prof. Donald Johanson, who has discovered, in 1974, together with archaeologist Tom Gray, the remains of a
human ancestor classified as Australopithecus afarensis, dated at 3.2 million
years ago, in Hadar, Ethiopia.
about where they come from, their ori- Where would you situate the disco- important discoveries in this country or
gins. The first question we ask as a child veries and the Dmanisi archeological the Caucasus region or elsewhere, but
is “Where did I come from?” and I think site in the context of paleoanthropo- we cannot find them unless we leave our
that paleoanthropology as a scientific logy – how important are the Dmanisi offices and our laboratories and get out
inquiry is the scientific way of trying to discoveries? into the field and explore. Exploration is
understand our origins. It was really the really the answer, and I try to encoura-
stimulus from the public that made me I think the Dmanisi fossils are extraor- ge my students to spend some of their
realize – sure, I could write scientific arti- dinarily important because they tell us time and effort participating in these ex-
cles that only my colleagues would read, about what the earliest humans out of peditions, and to think about, perhaps,
filled with terminology and tactical des- Africa look like, and the fact that they forming their own exploration in some
criptions and so forth – but the public left Africa long before we thought they place.
has a real interest in this. I felt it was very would leave. This has been a very impor-
important to translate the science so that tant international conference here in Tbi- Do you miss fieldwork?
everyone can understand it. Just as I’m lisi and has brought together scientists
not an astrophysicist or a cosmologist; from all over the world to share informa- Yes, I do, very much. Those were glo-
yet I’m very interested in how the univer- tion about the importance of this. All of rious years, wonderful years, when you
se came to be. I am not a specialist, and I us are terribly excited to be here to be are away from what we call “civilization”.
am always happy when a scientist writes able to see the original specimens and I thought doing fieldwork is much more
a book in a language I can comprehend, talk to the discoverers and the scientists civilized, but to be in the desert were I
that helps me understand the details of personally. worked in Ethiopia for 2-3 months a year,
cosmology, for example.

What was your reaction when you

first heard about the Dmanisi disco-
To be in the desert were I worked in Ethiopia for
2-3 months a year, living in place of the size of
Well, the first reaction I had was in early a tent and being part of the natural world,
Prof. Donald Johanson and Prof. David Lordkipanidze with the famous discoveries from 1990s when the first lower jaw or man- brought me some of the greatest satisfactions I
Dmanisi. Prod. Lordkipanidze holds Prof. Johanson's legendary book Lucy. This book
dible was found I knew immediately this
impacted the final decision of Prof. Lordkipanidze when choosing his profession.
was important; I knew secondly, it was a have ever felt.
big surprise. Who would’ve expected it?
know when we gave her the name that natural world. I was fortunate to develop and after, who had the education I had, It was so exciting for me because it was
evening, when we called her Lucy after a passion as a young boy, something I the passion and curiosity – but they did “out of Africa”. My focus had been on Afri- It seems Dmanisi is among the most living in place of the size of a tent and
the Beatle’s song, Lucy in the Sky with wanted to do above everything else. I ne- not have, I think, the patience to stay and ca, but we knew humans left Africa. We important sites? being part of the natural world, brought
Diamonds, that she would become so ver thought about making money; I ne- work and look, every single day – and thought it was very recent, but when I me some of the greatest satisfactions I
popular with people around the world ver thought about being a businessman most days never find anything. So, it is learned it was almost 2 million years ago Oh absolutely, it is, in terms of “out of have ever felt. And the sense of disco-
– not just to scientists, but to the avera- and successful. I wanted to do something not really luck – it is a combination of – 1.8 million years ago – it greatly chan- Africa «one of the most important sites; very – never knowing when you get up if
ge person who reads the newspaper for that really excited me – that made me these different elements that brings suc- ged our ideas about the sequence in ter- there is an important site in Spain where something important will be found that
example. feel like it was going to change what we cess – and in my case I was wonderfully ms of the time when our ancestors left. they are finding many specimens, but of day; and working as a team is a wonder-
know about the world. But the passion I rewarded with the discovery of Lucy in They didn’t control fire; they did not have this age – this is the single most impor- ful experience!
You mentioned that for three years had as a young boy I have carried throu- 1974. big brains… they were the first pioneers; tant site in all of Eurasia.
you found nothing. Why didn’t you ghout my life. And I think for people who they were exploring a world beyond Afri- What is your main activity now?
stop? Do you think that along with have come after me, to be successful you Why did you decide to write a book ca. And then as the team here, from this According to your opinion, what is
luck, that scientific curiosity and pa- have to be curious; you have to have a that was not only for scientific cir- museum, began to find more complete the future of paleoanthropology? I am still teaching, mostly online, a
tience are also important? What are passion for something; you have to have cles? specimens, we were all terribly excited. course at www.edx.org, which is a human
the most important assets that the dedication; and most importantly you It is an amazing collection. The preser- Well, I am often asked by my students: origins course that goes out to about ten
scientist should have, and what would have to have knowledge. Education is When I made the discovery, Lucy was vation of the specimens is absolutely - “Is there anymore place to look? You thousand people a year. Also, I am still
you say to the next generation? extraordinarily important. in the newspaper, and people were res- perfect and work is still going on; they seem to have found so many places al- working at the Arizona State University
Sometimes people say that I just stum- ponding by asking questions: “How old are still looking at these specimens and ready!” I say, “You must keep your mind Institute of Human Origins and conti-
I think that it is terribly important for bled or fell on this – I did not. I studied was she when she died?”; “How many learning much more about them, but it open and your energy high to go out nuing to write scientific articles. And I’ve
all humans to have curiosity about the many years at the university; I had this years ago did she live?”; “Was she an really is an important discovery helping and look for new places.” Who would’ve begun to write a book about myself – an
world around them. How we got here, passion, this curiosity and patience. The- adult?”; “Did she have babies?” There is a us understand when the first “out of Afri- expected these discoveries in Dmanisi, in autobiography.
how the world works – particularly the re were so many others who came before tremendous thirst; people want to know ca” experience happened. Georgia? – no one! There may be more