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If you like Donald Johanson's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donald Johanson in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Institute of Human Origins

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Donald Johanson
Donald Johanson
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Donald Johanson Biography

Discoverer of Lucy

Donald Johanson Date of birth: June 28, 1943

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  Donald Johanson
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Donald C. Johanson was born in Chicago, Illinois. Although his parents were Swedish immigrants with little education, his father, a barber, supported the family in relative comfort. All that changed when Johanson was two. His father died, leaving the family without any means of support. Johanson's mother worked as a cleaning lady to support them in far more modest circumstances, but always encouraged Johanson to study and prepare himself for a rewarding career.

Although Johanson did poorly on the Standardized Aptitude Test, an anthropologist neighbor encouraged him in his ambitions to become a scientist, and he was accepted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was determined to become an anthropologist and specialize in the study of human origins. Since one of the leading scholars in the field, Clark Howell, was at the university of Chicago, Johanson wrote to him and arranged a meeting. With Howell's support, Johanson transferred to the University of Chicago, where he won his bachelor's degree in 1966. He went on to earn his Master's and Ph.D. at the same institution.

As a Professor of Anthropology, his career took him from Case Western University, to Kent State, to Stanford, but his reputation is based on his archaeological work in the field, which began while he was still an undergraduate. His first trip to Africa came in 1970; he has participated in expeditions in South Africa, Tanzania and, most famously, Ethiopia.

Donald Johanson Biography Photo
It was at the Hadar site, in the Afar region of Ethiopia the Johanson made the discovery that changed our understanding of human origins forever. There, in 1974, he found the fossilized remains of a female hominid the world came to know as Lucy. Until then, paleoanthropologists had had to content themselves with the most fragmentary remnants of our pre-human ancestors. Over 40 percent of the Lucy skeleton had been preserved, enough to provide the anthropological world with some startling insights. The previously accepted account of human evolution had proposed that a strain of primates with larger brains evolved, became capable of making tools, and began walking upright to free up their hands. But, from all appearances, Lucy and the other hominids whose remains were found at the site, were walking upright, although their brains were barely larger than those of the chimpanzee. No stone tools, not even fragments, have survived at the stratum where Lucy and her contemporaries were found. From this, it may be inferred that our ancestors walked upright for another reason. They may have used their hands to carry food gathered for their offspring, and engaged in more elaborate cooperative behavior than one finds among creatures who walk on all fours.

At first, many scholars believed these remains were specimens of a previously identified species, Australopithecus africanus, but after years of studying the staggering assortment of fossils found at the Hadar site, Johanson came to another conclusion. In 1978, he shocked the scientific community with an assertion that the remains belonged to another distinct species, which he named Australopithecus afarensis.

Donald Johanson Biography Photo
Throughout the 1980s, the turbulent political situation in Ethiopia barred Johanson and his colleagues from returning to the site. In 1990, the fossil hunters were allowed to return and by 1992 had found a large portion of an afarensis skull. The reconstruction of the head silenced most of Johanson's critics and afarensis is now widely recognized as the ancestor of both Australopithecus africanus and modern man, Homo sapiens. Books Johanson has co-authored include: Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, Lucy's Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor, Journey From the Dawn: Life With the World's First Family, Ancestors: In Search of Human Origins, and From Lucy to Language. Since 1980, Johanson has participated in the production of more than one documentary series for Public Television. He appeared as the on-screen host of a 13-part series for Nature in 1982, and for the Nova series in 1994.

Today, Donald Johanson is Director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

This page last revised on Oct 29, 2010 14:58 EDT
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