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Johanson looks at Lucy's legacy

March 12, 2009

Don Johanson is one of the world's most recognizable paleoanthropologists, a researcher whose eureka moment was so immense that it resonated globally and forever changed our understanding of the human past. His discovery – Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old fossilized remains that would become a household name - is the subject of his latest book.

Called everything from the missing link to the poster child for evolution, Lucy is a 40-percent complete skeleton of a female hominid australopithecine. She is considered by paleoanthropologists to be a specimen that bridges the lines of ancient and modern humans and at the time of her finding was the oldest human relative fossil ever seen. When Johanson unearthed her from an Ethiopian ravine in 1974, he uncovered the physical evidence that confirmed early hominids had walked erect.

In 1981, Johanson chronicled the discovery and its significance in his New York Times bestseller, "Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind." Now, Johanson – a professor in Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change and founding director of the Institute of Human Origins in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – has put together a sequel of sorts. Collaborating with Scientific American writer and editor Kate Wong, Johanson continues the story of Australopithecus afarensis in "Lucy's Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins," out this month from Random House imprint Harmony Books.

It seems fitting that the publication occurs in a year marking two milestones in the study of human origins  – the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his defining work, "On the Origin of Species."

"People want to know about origins, especially our origins," Johanson states, noting that new discoveries continue to alter our understanding of where we came from as a species. Johanson explains that, since writing his first Lucy tome, scientists have let go of the belief that Neandertals were human forbears, and finds like the hobbit fossils of Indonesia have added new dimension to the study of human evolution. There is still much ground to cover, he says.

In "Lucy's Legacy," Johanson contextualizes his fossil find by exploring a number of salient issues, including the mystery of what it means to be human, the fate of the Neandertals and where evolution may eventually take the human race.

The public will have the opportunity to meet Johanson in person at two upcoming local book signings. March 17, 7-8 p.m., Johanson will be at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe. He will appear March 22, noon-1 p.m., at the Poisoned Pen, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale. For more information, call Changing Hands Bookstore at (480) 730-0205 or the Poisoned Pen at (480) 947-2974.