Book Review: Lucy by Donald Johanson

When I finished Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, I had no idea what to read next. All of my books seemed equally intriguing to me, so I used a random number generator to choose what to read, and I landed on Stephen Jay Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack. This book was pretty good, but . . . wait, that’s not what we’re talking about, is it? Oh. Right. This is about Lucy.

I perused Dinosaur in a Haystack for about a half hour, only to decide that Gould’s writing style is not for me. He was too pedantic. I sold that book to Half Price Books and realized that having my reading material chosen for me at random really just taught me what I do and do not actually want to read. I then picked up Donald Johanson’s and Maitland Edey’s Lucy from the shelf and never looked back.

I had bought this book last fall, and my copy is a first edition that I had found at Cleveland’s coolest cat-inhabited bookstore, Loganberry Books. I then realized that not only was there a Lucy exhibit at the nearby Cleveland Museum of Natural History, but that the author of the book, who was also the original founder of the Lucy fossil, had been based out of that museum at the time. We also found out that it was closed for the day and we would have to come back another time.

One of the reasons I chose to read Lucy was because our time to finally see the exhibit is coming up on October 25th! What’s more, after already planning to visit that weekend we found out later that Donald Johanson himself would be giving a talk there on that same day!

I consider myself very lucky—and very excited—to meet the author of one of my now-favorite books of all time. Really, this book is incredible. It makes me wish I had the scientific skill or patience to become a paleoanthropogist. I wish I had the heat tolerance to search for fossils in Africa. I wish I had the scrutiny to be able to analyze fossils and know what they meant. But boy, has it been fascinating to read about the people who do.

african hominid fossils 1924-1985
There is an infographic of this in the sequel, Lucy’s Child (1989), on page 23.

The beginning of the book gives a pretty comprehensive background of hominid fossil discoveries up to the point when Johanson entered the scene in the late 1960s. While the reading itself wasn’t difficult, it was very easy to get lost in the names of the discoverers, the nicknames of the fossils, and the names of the species that they were thought to be. It would have been nice to have a chart with them all laid out for reference as I read, especially for those fossils whose names and ages seemed to fluctuate as people tried to decide on them.

Following this background, understandably, is Johanson’s story of various field seasons in parts of Africa, as well as other current events in paleoanthropology. The book’s namesake was discovered in the author’s 1974 trip, and once she was found, the rest of the book is mostly focused on determining what Lucy and her “family” were and what it meant for the human-australopithecine family tree at large.

1981 hominid family tree
Lucy, page 284, Steve Misencik.

This all might not sound like it would need to take up 376 pages. Honestly, it could have been half the length and still told me the bare facts of what we’ve learned of human evolution here. You probably would have done just fine seeing their most complete family tree on page 284 (Steve Misencik), and maybe a nice diagram of different fossils, their ages, and who discovered them and when. But I wouldn’t have wanted this book to be any shorter.

This book put names and stories to what I’ve always just known as, “Australopithecus afarensis is commonly known as the transitional species between apes and modern humans. There were other human species that are now extinct, like Homo habilis and Homo erectus.” This book actually tells you the field’s quirky stories, like when Louis Leakey revealed his fossil Zinj (Paranthropus boisei, later reclassified as Paranthropus robustus or Australopithecus robustus, depending on whom you ask) to his student Clark Howell by hiding it in a biscuit tin and prompting Howell to open it at dinner. Elsewhere, we learned about how Robert Broom got his hands on an Australopithecus robustus fossil tooth in exchange for five chocolate bars given to a schoolboy named Gert Terblanche.

Johanson and Edey also taught us some of the difficulties and controversies that arise for those in the field. We found out just how hard it often was for Johanson and his various teams to get into Ethiopia to search for fossils at times of great political turmoil, how Richard Leakey tried to discredit Johanson’s naming of the new species Australopithecus afarensis because it infringed upon his biases, and of course, about the great hoax of the Piltdown Man.

I was so caught up in the book at so many points that it was easy to forget that it was written forty years ago. In my mind, Lucy is a brand new discovery that I just witnessed unfolding, and Don Johanson is a rising star in the field of paleoanthropology. It was jarring to end the book and realize that yes, it is 2019, and the human and australopithecine family tree looks almost nothing like it did in 1981. A lot of the great questions at the end of Lucy that made it a cliffhanger have already been answered.

2010 hominid family tree
The family tree shown in Lucy’s Legacy in 2010.

My problem now is I don’t know what to read next. I want to be caught up on all of the discoveries between 1981 and 2019. I looked into reading Johanson’s other books, Lucy’s Child (1989) and Lucy’s Legacy (2010), but some reviews seem to be telling me that nothing quite holds a candle to the original Lucy, so I’m tempted in that sense to quit this series while I’m ahead. I have a small collection of other books on human evolution, and I’m very open to suggestions!

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Lucy by Donald Johanson

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