The Man Who Loved Lucy

ASU's Donald Johanson redefined our understanding of man's origins. But when he told the world about it in books and on TV, some scientists thought he talked too much.

The most something, the oldest something else, all subject to interpretations that can be bumped off by the next big find.

"It's amazing how they never find a fossil that supports the other guy's point of view," says James Shreeve, who co-authored one of Johanson's books. "It's still an objective science."

Johanson and Tim White bumped the Leakeys off the top of the paleoanthropological summit. And now, though they were longtime collaborators, Johanson and White don't even speak to each other.

"This science has a long history of personality being mixed with the science," White says.

And in fact, White's no-nonsense personality is often described as thorny or prickly or some other adjective with a point.

In 1994, the Institute of Human Origins exploded, with several board members accusing Johanson of spending more time chasing fame and fortune with his popular books and television documentaries than he was spending on science. Never mind that the mass-media projects are truly marvelous works that clearly convey the magic and mystery of human origins. Such popularization and Johanson's high profile rub less user-friendly scientists raw. Somehow in their eyes his celebrity makes them question his credentials as a "pure scientist."

Paul Renne is president of Berkeley Geochronology Center, the entity that broke away from IHO in 1994. "[Johanson] is a captivating speaker," he says. "He's articulate. He knows far more than the average lay person."

Of course, to call Johanson a "lay person" is about as insulting as saying that Tiger Woods is an above-average duffer, but it illustrates the acrimony of the IHO split.

Renne backpedals: "He's not regarded as being one of the great thinkers in physical anthropology. What he has done is sponsor research to make things happen so that new fossils, very important fossils, are found."

On the other hand, Tim White, who is one of the great thinkers of physical anthropology, makes no bones about Johanson's ability to assess fossils.

"Johanson is one of the best morphologists I've ever worked with," he says. "He knows form."

In the beginning, there was a knee joint.
The Afar triangle is named for the Ethiopian tribe that lives there, and it's a roiling, barren desert, a point where the plates of the Earth are literally pulling apart, virtually vomiting up what was buried millions of years ago. With each season's rains, prehistoric human and animal fossils wash out of the hillsides.

There is a short but telling scene in a 1994 film Johanson made for the Nova TV series in which he walks along a path casually picking up fossil teeth, this one a rhino's bicuspid, that one (he plucks a jeweler's loupe from a pocket and scrutinizes it) a giraffe's molar. Neither species has existed in that landscape for millennia.

On a similar stroll in 1973, Johanson noticed the gray glint of fossils, and with that same instant recognition of its anatomy, he knew that he'd found a knee joint. Apes have bent knees, but this joint was straight, meaning that the creature it belonged to stood upright like a hominid, the term used to describe the biological family that includes humans, their ancestors and their extinct cousins. Homo sapiens is in fact the only species in the family that has not gone extinct.

If Johanson did not know which species this knee came from, he soon learned that it was more than three million years old, information he could use to scrape up the funding to come back the next year and find Lucy.

The rest is prehistory.
Johanson is a study in highbrow charm and sophistication. He speaks easily and can pepper his speech with metaphors and analogies that come from literature and opera. He once won a celebrity-chef charity competition judged by Wolfgang Puck and Craig Claiborne by casually whipping up a tureen of "chicken thighs in orange cream sauce."

Journalists often describe him as handsome, and he is, but they use the word in a slightly pejorative fashion. They allude to his wardrobe as "Ralph Lauren" and "Armani." Johanson denies owning garments by either designer.

He does wear clothes well, because he is a man of great natural grace. Johanson moves fluidly and speaks easily, even--perhaps especially--in front of a TV camera. What could make the graceless feel more ill at ease?

A former executive director of IHO once described Johanson's personality as "dramatic." He is as known for his temper as for his largess, and his motives are routinely questioned.

He adopted the adolescent son of one of his Ethiopian employees. The man literally left the boy to Johanson in his will when he died, and Johanson took him in as his own son. Yet among his detractors are some so cynical as to dismiss that extraordinary human gesture as just one more showboat excess.

William Kimbel, however, remembers a generous moment that launched him on the road to becoming a paleoanthropologist himself.

Kimbel had been an undergraduate student of Johanson's at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. By the time he'd discovered Lucy, Johanson had taken a curator's job at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Kimbel visited him there in his basement office.

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