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: What excites you the most about your current research?
Donald Johanson: Well I think the… I’ve worked in the earlier periods, three to four million years ago. What excites me probably more than anything these days is the emergence of ourselves, the emergence of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans. For many years we thought that this was an explosive moment. It was called the cultural explosion or whatever, the cognitive explosion and what we’re beginning to find is that it is a sort of step by step development and most of those important steps were seminal in Africa, and I think that we’re going to be able to flesh out in much more detail the archeology, the paleoclimate, the biology and the behavior of the emergence of that creature, those creatures, early homo sapiens, that gave rise to all humans today, and it is my sense that all humans today come out of Africa, so by implication, regardless of what we look like on the outside, genetically, on the inside, everyone is an African.
Recorded on March 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen