Origin Story
Lucy, famous bones, and the political suppression of science.


Everybody likes a good detective story. That’s one reason so many people are fascinated by the search for humanity’s early ancestors, from the discovery of fossils, often in remote places, to the piecing together of evidence. These tales proceed step by step, like a good mystery, and tell of our origins, evolution, and history. Neanderthal Man is guaranteed a spot on the front page whenever some new fact about him emerges. And almost everybody has heard about Lucy, the skeleton of a 3.2-million-year-old hominid that stands in an intermediary position between our species and our nearest simian relatives.

Unfortunately, the political climate in the United States today is such that discoveries about our ancient past are often suppressed despite their scientific value and the public’s hunger for knowledge about them.

In the case of Lucy, the thrill of discovery and the scientific detective work that established her place in our line of evolution is told by the discoverer himself, Donald Johanson, and his co-author, science writer Kate Wong, in their new book, Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins. From the first lines, the reader feels the excitement and the humility of discovery. “As a teenager, I dreamed of traveling to Africa and finding a ‘missing link,’ ” writes Johanson. “Never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine that I would discover a fossil as earthshaking as Lucy.”

Anyone who has ever been in the field on a scientific expedition will recognize — and many who have never been there can well imagine — the feelings that Johanson conjures in his narrative. He describes his day of discovery: waking up in a tent before dawn, seeing the stars glittering through the mosquito net, listening to the morning sounds of camp life, and later “the scaring, noonday sun beating down on my shoulders . . . the shock of seeing a small fragment of bone.” He continues: “Most dedicated fossil hunters spend the majority of their lives in the field without finding anything remarkable. And there I was . . . a 31-year-old newly minted Ph.D., staring at my childhood dream at my feet.”

The team celebrated that night while the camp tape recorder played the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” over and over again. Lucy thus became the nickname of the individual they had unearthed. Soon after, it became the name by which the skeleton has been known around the world. Lucy’s Legacy chronicles, in novelistic prose, the story of the people involved in that and subsequent expeditions; how the fossil material was interpreted; the identification of a new species, Australopithicus afarensis, of which Lucy is only one member; and the debates that helped shape the theory of this link in the emergence of our species. This true story, as interesting as any fictional narrative, illuminates what science is and how it works.

The authors describe Lucy’s world — what it was like “growing up Australopithecine” — as well as her ancestors and her descendants, in a line of evolution leading to ourselves. Johanson also tells about the journey of man’s early ancestors out of Africa and around the world. He discusses along the way a race of small individuals (popularly known as “hobbits,” after the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien) discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores that possibly represents a branch of the human family tree, and, finally, the story of Neanderthal Man of Europe and the Middle East.

The authors end the book with an epilogue on “Unsolved Mysteries,” a field that promises more such finds in the future and a deeper understanding of our species. Who was the last common ancestor of chimps and humans? How many Australopithecine species existed? What specific factors led to the rise of Homo sapiens? One need have no prior knowledge of physical anthropology when reading Lucy’s Legacy, since Johanson and Wong do an admirable job of integrating scientific theories, terminology, and assumptions into the flow of their narrative. Readers will come to know the parameters, issues, and trends touching this field of science.

Lucy and other valuable fossils were discovered in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, a place ideally suited for such finds and an area still important in research into human origins and human evolution. At times the political situation in Ethiopia threatened the scientists’ work, especially when that unhappy country went through what Johanson describes as a “Red Terror” launched in 1977. (Read NRO’s exclusive excerpt of this section here.) Those days mercifully are over, and Ethiopians are rightfully proud of the fact that Lucy was discovered in their country. Her remains are now permanently housed in the National Museum in Addis Ababa.