An Anthropologist's Fossil Paradise in Ethiopia Is Also a Battleground Over Early Man
Johanson, curator of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, returned to the site for four years of exploration. In 1973 he found the knee joint of an early human ancestor, which he claims is the oldest anatomical evidence of an individual walking upright. In 1974 he uncovered 40 percent of the skeleton of a 3.5 million-year-old female and in 1975 the earliest fossil remains of a family. After careful study of the bones, Johanson, 36, and his research partner, Berkeley anthropologist Tim White, 29, made a startling announcement in 1979. They claimed that the female skeleton and the family fossils represented a previously unrecognized species of prehuman beings who were the ancestors of modern man.
The two scientists named these apelike progenitors Australopithecus (for southern apes) afarensis (Hadar is in the Afar region of Ethiopia). Johanson had already nicknamed the 3'6" female "Lucy," after the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Johanson's discoveries and what he says they mean won him the admiration of many colleagues—and also put him in highly publicized scientific conflict with the first family of anthropology, the Leakeys.
Mary Leakey, 67, and her son Richard, 35, believe that the Afar apeman was not a separate ancestor of man but an offshoot from the evolutionary tree, curious but not important. They argue that Johanson really found an unusual Australopithecus africanus, a known hominid (human-like) creature. The Leakeys believe man's last prehuman ancestors disappeared—and man came to exist—four or five million years ago. Johanson says it was two or three million years ago, a profound difference in paleoanthropology. "Not very scientific," Mary Leakey sniffed of Johanson and White's work. Richard Leakey disputed Johanson in journals and a symposium last year.
Their disagreement is heated but affable. "The reason we have received so much criticism from the Leakeys," Johanson says, "is that this is the first time a major, viable alternative to their way of thinking has been proposed in 35 or 40 years." He and Richard have continued to correspond during Leakey's convalescence from a recent kidney transplant (PEOPLE, February 18). Johanson says, "While we still disagree, it is not going to affect our friendship."
The child of Swedish immigrants, Johanson grew up in Hartford, where his widowed mother worked as a domestic. A neighbor, Paul Leser, who taught anthropology at Hartford Seminary Foundation, served as the boy's confidant. Johanson still stops in Hartford on his way home from digs to show his latest finds to "my father."
Johanson earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois and his doctorate at Chicago. Married and divorced while in graduate school, he now lives in an Art Nouveau-furnished bachelor home. He recently delivered Lucy's bones to the Ethiopian National Museum, is co-author of a book on evolution that will be published this fall and plans to dig just south of Hadar later this year.
"When you are out there all alone in the middle of the desert and you can't hear any sounds except your own feet, sometimes you turn around and, bang!" Johanson rhapsodizes. "Right there is something that was alive three and a half million years ago; it died and was fossilized. You are the first to find it."