On June 22, Yves Coppens, the famous French paleoanthropologist who had become a monument in his country, died. The departure of this researcher, professor, museum director, author, popularizer and Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, awarded with many other medals or awards, made headlines in all media in France and elsewhere in Francophonie. . He is nicknamed “the discoverer of Lucy”, “the co-discoverer of Lucy”, “the paleoanthropologist who co-discovered Lucy”…
And yet Lucy’s “father” owed much of his fame to a confusion in the media treatment of the announcement of the discovery. Technically, Yves Coppens was not the discoverer of Lucy, although it has been said and repeated for 47 years.
Back in 1974, under the scorching sun of Hadar, Ethiopia. The International Afar Research Expedition, a team of Ethiopian, American and French researchers, has been working for several days to excavate and excavate sedimentary deposits several million years old. On the morning of November 24, the team’s paleoanthropologist, American Donald Johanson, accompanied by an archeology student named Tom Gray, returned to an area already twice excavated, just in case…
And after two hours, luck smiled on them: there, on a slope, a piece of bone emerged from the sediment – a small humerus. Then, very close by, the back of a small skull. And a meter away a femur… The numerous bones seem to come from the same body, the two researchers excitedly leave for camp and then return with the rest of the team. This is the start of a meticulous and careful excavation that will last three weeks and will yield hundreds of bone fragments. All in all, unbelievably, we find 40% of the skeleton of a small hominid just over a meter tall that lived standing on its two legs more than three million years ago. At that time no such old skeleton was so well known.
The first evening is the party at the camp. The four Americans, including Johanson and Gray, the seven French, including geologist Maurice Taieb, and the many Ethiopians celebrate this discovery to the sound of a tape player playing on an endless loop. Lucy in the sky with diamondsa hit by the Beatles in 1967. The fossil, initially prosaically numbered AL 288-1, quickly took on the nickname Lucy – thanks to the Beatles (note that the Ethiopians instead gave her a pseudonym in the Amharic language, Dinqnesh, which means “you are wonderful”).
But Yves Coppens is not involved. At the time of discovery, he was in France preparing for admission to the prestigious Collège de France. If he is Lucy’s “dad” then we can say he missed the delivery. However, it should be specified that the paleontologist (his PhD thesis was on the teeth of prehistoric elephants) is one of the three leaders of the expedition, along with Taieb and Johanson, and one of those who made it possible, primarily financially.
Only two months later, when the precious bones stopped in Paris on their way to America, Yves Coppens was seen next to them. He and Maurice Taieb organize an official press conference to introduce the fossil to “the whole world,” and get their share of the credit. An event that will contribute significantly to future requests for funding and further support for research on human origins from the French government.
And at this point, somewhere during this presentation to the press or in the various articles that followed, the brushes would have gotten tangled, as if the words “director” and “discoverer” had been switched. Probably in good faith, perhaps out of some chauvinism, the French media credited this Frenchman with paternity of the discovery. Left uncorrected, this exaggeration stuck and stayed with the man throughout his career and even in the worship concert after his death.
Subsequently, the Lucy fossil made its way to the United States and a first scientific article appeared in 1976, but the name Coppens did not appear anywhere among the authors. It wasn’t until 1978 that he got involved and co-authored the second scientific paper on Lucy, which named a new species Australopithecus afarensis. But the Americans and thus also the inhabitants of English-speaking countries do not know him and do not attribute him any role in the 1974 find. His erroneous portrayal as the “discoverer” of the fossil only exists in France, bouncing off French-speaking countries consuming French media.
British biologist Richard Dawkins was surprised by this situation in his 2004 book on evolution. The history of the ancestors : ” […] I don’t know what to make of Yves Coppens being widely credited in his native France as the discoverer of Lucy, even as the ‘father’ of Lucy. In the English-speaking world, this important discovery is commonly credited to Donald Johanson. »
But paleoanthropologists don’t throw stones at it. “He was part of the team and not associated with it “coincidentally‘ explains Michelle Drapeau, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montreal. But his contribution to the discovery was most likely less than that of Johanson. However, it is important to specify that in paleoanthropology, the “Explorer‘, the one who organizes the expedition is very rarely the person who finds the fossil. It may happen that the person responsible is not on site and is considered as such “Explorer‘, since he (or she) set the whole project up, found the funding, decided where and in which geological strata to explore, recruited the scientists and students, etc. This is by far the hardest part and deserves a full one Recognition. »
It is therefore difficult to shout usurpation, since the status of “discoverer” is nevertheless defensible. Yves Coppens’ bloated fame wasn’t his fault, it served him well – and good for him. If this somewhat fabricated story has allowed more French public money to be injected into research as fundamental as that on the origins of man, then good luck!
But the story loses some of its inventiveness when you realize that Coppens has occasionally warped reality to fit his own myth. In interviews throughout his career he explained the difficult conditions under which the excavations had taken place or described the details of the discovery of which he was the “father”. For example in 2001 at the now discontinued show Pointto Radio-Canada, he suggested being one of the thirty people on the scene at the famous moment.
In a 2009 student phone interview that can be found online, we hear the late Maurice Taieb, the French geologist who was present at the discovery of Lucy, confirm Yves Coppens’ absence but also discuss the site , which he took up in college media thereafter, always clinging to the myth of his paternity. But after so many years of surfing, could he really have defuse a legend without harm?
Yves Coppens’ legacy remains undeniable. A great advocate of research, he managed to get Mr. and Mrs. Jeder interested in paleontology, thanks in particular to his impressive talent as a storyteller. In the 1980s and 1990s he popularized an evolutionary model of the appearance of the first hominids: what he called the East Side Story. The hypothesis, first proposed by Dutch ethologist Adriaan Kortlandt as the Rift Valley Theory, held that the first bipedal primates appeared in East Africa a few million years ago due to changes in climatic conditions that had replaced the forest with the savannah. Fossils of ancient bipeds were later found in the western part of the continent, particularly in Chad, showing that bipeds also existed in forest environments, disproving the hypothesis. And in the face of the evidence, as a good scientist, Coppens had the grace to admit that his East Side Story was not a valid model.
The scientist, also known for his research on mammoths, for his commitment to the preservation of the Lascaux Cave, for his defense of science in the political sphere, for his good nature and warm voice, cannot see that this is the wrong story Fatherhood will never stain his memory: it rather reveals a weakness in Yves Coppens, enough to make him even more likeable, more human.