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Donald Johanson: What Lucy Says About Us

He certainly shook up our family tree that day in 1974. The human family tree that is.

Tuesday on Up to Date Steve Kraske welcomes paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson who discovered the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis. Too hard to pronounce?  Don’t worry, you can call her Lucy.  And while a certain redhead might have her beat for the most famous to hold the moniker,  she certainly holds the title in the world of fossils.

This hour we ask Johanson about that day in Ethiopia when he unearthed the bones. Plus, we talk about how he and his colleagues have uncovered specimens spanning 400,000 years and what it tells us about our evolution.  And what do we still not know? It’s been 35 years since his infamous find, but he continues to seek out answers to that question.

HEAR MORE: Donald Johanson speaks this evening at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City. The event is full. Click here for more information. Donald Johanson made it big when he and his team uncovered a number of remarkable skeletal remains in Ethiopia of a new, and very ancient, 'proto-human' species known as Australopithecus afarensis — a key discovery which would alter how we currently understand our evolutionary history. The most dramatic find however was to be in the form of a small, though nearly complete, fossilized individual who went by the name "Lucy" (after the song "Lucy in the sky with Diamonds" by the Beatles). Lucy possessed a mixed bag of both primitive and modern features, which led a number of scientists to call it "the ideal missing link." From the neck up Lucy was extremely primitive — with a narrow jaw, enlarged molars, low brain volume, etc. Though at the same time, her body was undeniably modern; possessing a human-like pelvis, knee, and femur (all characteristic of modern human gait). Johanson wrote about his discoveries, adventures and revolutionary ideas in a series of best-selling books. Lucy, chronicled the exciting find and the heated debates which ensued; Lucy's Child covers his subsequent discoveries in Tanzania (including some of the bitter feuds in the world of physical anthropology — particularly his quarrels with Richard Leakey and the group at the State University of Stony Brook in New York). Blueprints, was his book on evolution, co-written with Maitland Edey; Ancestors, a companion piece to his NOVA Special on PBS; and most recently From Lucy to Language, a beautiful and lavishly illustrated coffee-table book which chronicles the latest developments in the field, and offers its readers a chance to look at key specimens at real-life scales. Dr. Johanson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1943; earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1974. He is currently an Honorary Board Member of the Explorer Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Today he teaches at Arizona State University, where he runs the Institute of Human Origins.

Stephen Steigman is director of Classical KC and chief of broadcast operations for KCUR 89.3 and 91.9 Classical KC.
Steve Kraske is the host of KCUR's Up To Date. Follow him on Twitter @stevekraske.