Donald Johanson

How “Lucy” Got Her Name

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It’s true: the world’s most famous skeleton really was named after a Beatles song. And once she was “Lucy,” she became more than just a scientific specimen.

Donald Johanson

Donald Johanson is an American paleoanthropologist and the founder of the Institute of Human Origins. He went on his first exploratory expedition to Ethiopia in 1972, and the following year completed his PhD and began teaching at Case Western Reserve University. In 1974 he discovered AL 288-1, a partial skeleton of a female australopithecine who soon became world-renowned as "Lucy." In 1975 he and his team found a major collection of fossils, known as "The First Family," at a single site. In 1976, more hominid fossils were discovered, along with stone tools which, at 2.5 million years, were the oldest in the world.  In 1978, he and his colleague, Tim White, named the species he had discovered Australopithecus afarensis.

In 1981, Johanson founded the Institute of Human Origins, a non-profit research institution devoted to the study of prehistory. He is the author of several books including, most recently, "Lucy's Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins" (with Kate Wong, Harmony Books, 2009).


Question: Is it true that “Lucy” was named after “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”?

Donald Johanson:  The origins of Lucy’s name.  I had a girlfriend on the expedition whose name was Pamela, and we were celebrating the discovery.  Of course this was a major discovery.  Here is 40% of a skeleton, 3.2 million years old.  It was pretty mind-blowing, and I had been, always had been a great Beatles fan, so we had Beatles tapes playing on a little Sony tape recorder, and the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album was playing and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing and Pamela said, “Well if you think that this specimen is a female why don’t you name her Lucy?”  And I thought wow, well you know, I’m a scientist.  It should have a scientific name.  I just got my PhD at the University of Chicago.  We shouldn’t give cute little names to these fossils.  Yet, it was too late.  Once that word was uttered the next morning at breakfast students said, “Are we going back to the Lucy site?”  “Do you think we’ll find more of Lucy’s skull?”  “How old do you think Lucy was when she died?”  And all of a sudden she started to become a personality.  She was identifiable as an individual.  She was not just Afar Locality 288, which is the entry in our log book.  That’s her catalog number.  She became a person and a personality, and what is interesting about that is I think if we sat around the table and said, “Well what should we name this specimen?”  “Should we give it a name?” it never would have worked, so it was just pure serendipity, the name stuck.

Recorded on March 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen