Dr. Donald Johanson

The Origins of Humankind: The View from Africa

Dr. Donald Johanson will review such clues about human origins now stretching back to more than four million years and will highlight his discovery of the now famous skeleton named Lucy.


Paleoanthropologist, Author of Lucy: The Beginnings of Human Kind

“Understanding who we are is not just a matter of idle curiosity.  It is a matter of survival for our own species as well as for the millions of other species with whom we share the Earth.”  ---Donald C. Johanson

As a teenager growing up in Hartford, Connecticut Don Johanson read Thomas Henry Huxley’s book Man’s Place in Nature.  This work hypothesized that modern humans and African apes descended from an ancient common ancestor that lived in Africa.  Johanson became mesmerized by that notion and decided he would dedicate his life to searching for early human ancestors in Africa.

Over the course of a remarkable career beginning with his first expedition to Ethiopia in 1970, he has been responsible for a number of groundbreaking discoveries, most notably, the Lucy skeleton.  Today he is considered to be one of the most accomplished and important fossil hunters for human ancestors in the field of paleoanthropology.

The 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton is considered to be the best-known human ancestor fossil of the 20th Century.  She has achieved iconic stature and is the touchstone for human evolution.  Best known to the public as the Mother of Humankind, she has stimulated widespread scientific debate and major revisions in the understanding of our ancient past.  Her species, Australopithecus afarensis, sits at a pivotal place on the human family tree between much more ancient very ape-like ancestors and more advanced species including the one that led to modern humans.  Her skeleton is distinguished by an amalgam of ape and human features that makes her an ideal transitional fossil between the two species.

Since obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (1974), he has led field explorations in eastern Africa and the Middle East.  Furthermore he has become the field’s leading communicator of the science of human origins through innumerable public lectures, hosting and narrating a PBS/NOVA Emmy nominated series In Search of Human Origins, and co-authoring nine books. Johanson founded the Institute of Human Origins, a human-evolution think tank now at Arizona State University. He is an honorary board member of the Explorers Club, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a distinguished member of the Siena Academy of Sciences in Italy.  He also serves as the Virginia M. Ullman Chair in Human Origins at ASU, where he teaches.

Winner of the American Book Award in Science 1981:

Johanson, D.C. and M. A. Edey.  1981.  Lucy:  The Beginnings of HumankindNew York:  Simon and Schuster 

Most Recent Works: 

Johanson, D.C. and Kate Wong  March 2009.  Lucy’s Legacy:  The Quest for Human Origins.  New York: Harmony Press.

Johanson, D.C. and B. Edgar. 2006.  From Lucy to Language.  New York:  Simon and Schuster; 2nd Edition.

Webby Award in 2002 for best science web site:  www.becominghuman.org 

Event Information

The Origins of Humankind: The View from AfricaConversation with Students

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