The French paleontologist yves copens, one of the discoverers of the famous australopitheca ‘Lucy’, died this Wednesday at the age of 87 after a long illness. The fossil remains, the most famous in the world, were recovered in the Afar desert in Ethiopia during an international expedition. They belonged to a female in her 20s. Australopithecus afarensis that already walked upright more than three million years ago. This finding marked a before and after in the knowledge of human evolution and shed light on when and how we began to walk on two legs.
The ‘fossil hunter’ began his expeditions in the 1960s, in Algeria and Chad. In 1967 he discovered a 2.6 million year old hominid fossil in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.
But it was in 1974 that his career was marked forever when he unearthed ‘Lucy’ together with his geologist friend Maurice Taieb and the American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson.
From grandmother to cousin
Searches in Afar allowed the exhumation of 52 bone fragments – the most complete hominid fossil ever found until then. Scientists nicknamed it ‘Lucy’, referring to a Beatles song they used to listen to while working, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Being bipedal, this little hominid, one meter tall and weighing 27 kilos, was long considered the ‘grandmother of humanity’, something that Johanson continues to think. But for Coppens and other paleontologists, it is more of a ‘distant cousin’ of our species.
Coppens, who presented himself as one of Lucy’s ‘dads’, made other expeditions in the Philippines, Indonesia, Siberia, China and Mongolia. He was co-discoverer of six hominids. However, his name has been unmistakably linked to ‘Lucy’. “To the young people, Lucy was like a close friend; she made people connect with prehistory (…) The thing is that ‘Lucy’ became quite a symbol », she acknowledged in an interview with ABC during a visit to Barcelona in 2018.
Response to climate change
In the same interview, Coppens explained that what we know today as the homo gender appeared «as a sort of response to climate change.» When the climate went from humid to very dry, the prehumans, Lucy for example, changed in three aspects. «They changed the breathing and lowered the larynx, which is where the articulated language is installed; the teeth began to be different because there were fewer vegetables and the homo became omnivorous, he began to eat meat; and the brain began to receive more blood. Thus, if humanity began to think more and better, it was to adapt », he explained.
Coppens was born on August 9, 1934 in Vannes (north-western France). His father was a nuclear physicist but the boy quickly finds his own calling. «At 6 or 7 years old, I was already fascinated by old things,» he said in the same meeting with ABC.
«Yves Coppens left us this morning. My sadness is immense », his editor, Odile Jacob, reported on the social network Twitter on Wednesday. «I lose a friend who entrusted me with all his work. France loses one of its great men », she added.
#Yves Coppens nous a quittés ce matin. Ma tristesse est immense. Yves Coppens is a très grand savant, paleontologist of world renown, member of innumerable foreign institutions, most surtout professor at the Collège de France and member of the Académie des sciences.
— Odile Jacob (@EditriceOJacob) June 22, 2022
And humanity loses one of the paleontologists who has best explained it.
Interview with Yves Coppens on ABC: «What we know today as ‘homo’ appeared as a response to climate change»