Johanson's 1981 version of the 1974 Lucy fossil discovery

Allan Krill

When Gray told the others about the discovery, he said "We've got it. We've got The Whole Thing." It sounds like the others knew what "Whole Thing" he was talking about. 

It is impossible for rain to uncover many deeply buried fossils all at the same time. Erosion from rain removes the top centimeter or so of sediment, which is washed down slope. It loosens a fossil fragment that is near the surface, which also moves downhill. The next time it rains, the fist piece will be washed away, and another piece will be loosened and move down hill. There are never many pieces at once.

A searcher sees a loose fragment, and then goes uphill to find more sticking out of the ground, and then digs there to find the pieces that are still buried in the sediment. But in the case of Lucy, all the pieces were found lying loose on the surface. This is impossible. Someone put them there. Rain and erosion did not do it.

 The Beginnings of Humankind 


Donald C. Johanson & Maitland A. Edey

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks





As a paleoanthropologist−one who studies the fossils of human ancestors−I am superstitious. Many of us are, because the work we do depends a great deal on luck. The fossils we study are extremely rare, and quite a few distinguished paleoanthropologists have gone a lifetime without finding a single one. I am one of the more fortunate. This was only my third year in the field at Hadar, and I had already found several. I know I am lucky, and I don't try to hide it. That is why I wrote "feel good" in my diary. When I got up that morning I felt it was one of those days when you should press your luck. One of those days when something terrific might happen. 


Throughout most of that morning, nothing did. Gray and I got into one of the expedition's four Land-Rovers and slowly jounced our way to Locality 162. This was one of several hundred sites that were in the process of being plotted on a master map of the Hadar area, with detailed information about geology and fossils being entered on it as fast as it was obtained. Although the spot we were headed for was only about four miles from camp, it took us half an hour to get there because of the rough terrain. When we arrived it was already beginning to get hot. 


At Hadar, which is a wasteland of bare rock, gravel and sand, the fossils that one finds are almost all exposed on the surface of the ground. Hadar is in the center of the Afar desert, an ancient lake bed now dry and filled with sediments that record the history of past geological events. You can trace volcanic-ash fall there, deposits of mud and silt washed down from distant mountains, episodes of volcanic dust, more mud, and so on. Those events reveal themselves like layers in a slice of cake in the gullies of new young rivers that recently have cut through the lake bed here and there. It seldom rains at Hadar, but when it does it comes in an overpowering gush−six months' worth overnight. The soil, which is bare of vegetation, cannot hold all that water. It roars down the gullies, cutting back their sides and bringing more fossils into view. 


Gray and I parked the Land-Rover on the slope of one of those gullies. We were careful to face it in such a way that the canvas water bag that was hanging from the side mirror was in the shade. Gray plotted the locality on the map. Then we got out and began doing what most members of the expedition spent a great deal of their time doing: we began surveying, walking slowly about, looking for exposed fossils. 


Some people are good at finding fossils. Others are hopelessly bad at it. It's a matter of practice, of training your eye to see what you need to see. I will never be as good as some of the Afar people. They spend all their time wandering around in the rocks and sand. They have to be sharp-eyed; their lives depend on it. Anything the least bit unusual they notice. One quick educated look at all those stones and pebbles, and they'll spot a couple of things a person not acquainted with the desert would miss. 


Tom and I surveyed for a couple of hours. It was now close to noon and the temperature was approaching 110. We hadn't found much: a few teeth of the small extinct horse Hipparion; part of the skull of an extinct pig; some antelope molars; a bit of a monkey jaw. We had large collections of all these things already, but Tom insisted on taking these also as added pieces in the overall jigsaw puzzle of what went where. 


"I've had it," said Tom. "When do we head back to camp?"


"Right now. But let's go bak this way and survey the bottom of that little gully over there."


The gully in question was just over the crest of the rise where we had been working all morning. It had been thoroughly checked out at least twice before by other workers, who had found nothing interesting. Nevertheless, conscious of the "lucky" feeling that had been with me since I woke, I decided to make that small final detour. There was virtually no bone in the gully. But as we turned to leave, I noticed something lying on the ground partway up the slope.


"That's a bit of a hominid arm," I said. 


"Can't be. It's too small. Has to be a monkey of some kind."


We knelt to examine it. 


"Much too small," said Gray again. 


I shook my head. "Hominid."


"What makes you so sure?" he said.


"That piece right next to your hand. That's hominid too."


"Jesus Christ," said Gray. He picked it up. It was the back of a small skull. A few feet away was part of a femur: a thighbone. "Jesus Christ," he said again. We stood up, and began to see other bits of bone on the slope: a couple of vertebrae, part of a pelvis−all of them hominid. An unbelievable, impermissible thought flickered through my mind. Suppose all these fitted together? Could they be parts of a single, extremely primitive skeleton? No such skeleton had ever been found−anywhere.


"Look at that," said Gray. "Ribs."


A single individual?


"I can't believe it," I said. "I just can't believe it."


"By God, you'd better believe it!" shouted Gray. "Here it is. Right here!" His voice went up into a howl. I joined him. In that 110 degree heat we were jumping up and down. With nobody to share our feelings, we hugged each other, sweaty and smelly, howling and hugging in the heat-shimmering gravel, the small brown remains of what now seemed almost certain to be parts of a single hominid skeleton lying all around us. 


"We've got to stop jumping around," I finally said. "We may step on something. Also, we've got to make sure." 


"Aren't you sure, for Christ's sake?"


"I mean, suppose we find two left legs. There may be several individuals here, all mixed up. Let's play it cool until we can come back and make absolutely sure that it all fits together."


We collected a couple pieces of jaw, marked the spot exactly and got into the blistering Land-Rover for the run back to camp. On the way we picked up two expedition geologists who were loaded down with rock samples they had been gathering. 


"Something big," Gray kept saying to them. "Something big. Something big." 


"Cool it," I said. 


But about a quarter of a mile from camp, Gray could not cool it. He pressed his thumb on the Land-Rover's horn, and the long blast brought a scurry of scientists who had been bathing in the river. "We've got it," he yelled. "Oh, Jesus, we've got it. We've got The Whole Thing!"


That afternoon everyone in camp was at the gully, sectioning off the site and preparing for a massive collecting job that ultimately took three weeks. When it was done, we had recovered several hundred pieces of bone (many of them fragments) representing about forty percent of the skeleton of a single individual. Tom's and my original hunch had been right. There was no bone duplication. 


But a single individual of what? On preliminary examination it was very hard to say, for nothing quite like it had ever been discovered. The camp was rocking with excitement. That first night we never went to bed at all. We talked and talked. We drank beer after beer. There was a tape recorder in the camp, and a tape of the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" went belting out into the night sky, and was played at full volume over and over again out of sheer exuberance. At some point during that unforgettable evening−I no longer remember exactly when−the new fossil picked up the name of Lucy, and has been so known ever since, although its proper name−its acquisition number in the Hadar collection−is AL 288-1