August 30, 2011

Book Review: Lucy

Lucy: The Beginnings of HumankindLucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

by Donald Johanson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book when I was writing a paleo-historic drama of the life of earliest man. My characters were Homo habilines, but they cohabited Africa with Australopithecines, so to understand the co-stars of my story, I turned to the man who has become the guru of earliest man: Donald Johanson and his amazing find, Lucy.

In his book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (Touchstone Simon & Schuster 1990) Johanson and his co-author, Maitland Edey tell the fascinating tale of how they found Lucy, the most complete skeleton ever uncovered of an Australopithecene, the genus that immediately preceded Homo. Prior to this find, he was pretty much an unknown, toiling with many other paleoanthropologists in search of man’s roots, maybe the now defunct ‘missing link’. Johanson got an idea, followed it despite adversity, disbelievers, money problems and set-backs. These, he chronicles in the book, sharing every step of his journey with an easy-going writing style, breaking down the complicated science to an amateur’s understanding and sharing his innermost thoughts on his discovery and how it changed then-current thinking on man’s evolution. I learned not only about Lucy, but how paleoanthropologists do their field work, what their days are like, how they fight to prepare for an expedition, and the politics they must solve both to get there and get back. Johanson also includes well-written descriptions on the background of human evolution, field work in East Africa, the paleo-historic geology of Olduvai Gorge (the famed location where Leakey uncovered so much of our primeval roots), the discussion among scientists that pinned down the human-ness of the genus Homo and what differentiated it from older genus like Australopithecines (Lucy’s genus), other animals Lucy likely lived with and survived despite of, how Lucy’s age was definitively dated, and more.

Johanson jumps right in with the Prologue, telling us how Lucy came to be discovered, and then takes us back to the story of how he got there and what happened after. Through Lucy’s story, we learn about man’s beginnings and who that earliest forebear was. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • She had lain silently in her adamantine grave for millennium after millennium until the rains at Hadar had brought her to light again
  • Bands of Homo erectus would wait in the valleys between the hills for the big game herds that migrated south for the winter. They drove the game into swamps by setting grass fires.
  • Big men have big brains, but they are no smarter than small men. Men are also larger than women and have consistently larger brains, but the two sexes are of equal intelligence
  • Desert people the world over shun wadis or defiles as campsites
  • The ash became wet and, almost like a newly laid cement sidewalk, began taking clear impressions of everything that walked across it
  • You don’t gradually go from being a quadruped to being a biped. What would the intermediate stage be–a triped? I’ve never seen one of these.
  • You might not think that erect walking has anything to do with sex, but it has, it has
  • If one is to jump and snatch, one had better be able to judge distances accurately.
  • The way to precise distance judgment is via binocular vision: focusing two eyes on an object to provide depth perception
  • The chimpanzee…is the most adaptable of the apes.
  • A hen is an egg’s way of getting another egg.

For some truly beautiful and realistic drawings of man’s predecessors, check out Jay Matternes. Here are a few samples:


Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for, an ISTE article reviewer, an IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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