Donald Johanson, born in 1943, American paleoanthropologist specializing in the study of human evolution. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Johanson received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1966. He earned a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1974. In 1972 Johanson became an assistant professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
In 1973 Johanson began to search for fossil remains of hominines, the primitive ancestors of modern humans, in the Hadar Valley in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia. He made his most famous discovery in 1974 when he unearthed a 3 million-year-old skeleton of a female hominine. Johanson informally named his discovery Lucy, after the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by British rock music group the Beatles. Formally, Johanson decided the skeleton belonged to a previously unknown species of primitive hominines belonging to the genus Australopithecus (see Australopithecines). He assigned it the classification A. afarensis (Southern Ape from the Afar region). The skeleton, about 40 percent complete, revealed that Lucy had a small brain, but walked erect much like modern humans. Johanson’s discovery dealt a major blow to the previously common belief that fully erect posture evolved alongside larger brains and tool-making skills. A. afarensis demonstrated that bipedalism (walking upright on two feet) had evolved much earlier than large brains.
On a return trip to Hadar in 1975, Johanson found another collection of A. afarensis fossils. Informally labeled the “First Family,” the discovery consisted of over 200 bones belonging to about 13 individuals. The First Family discovery offered the oldest evidence of human ancestors living in groups. Evidence at the site suggested that the entire group had died at the same time, perhaps by drowning in a flash flood.
Johanson has also conducted research in Tanzania, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. In 1986 Johanson’s research team found a 1.8 million-year-old partial Homo habilis skeleton at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. H. habilis, first discovered in the same area by British-Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in 1960, is thought to be the first hominine to make tools.
In 1982 Johanson became the director of the Institute of Human Origins in Berkeley, California. Johanson is coauthor of a number of books, including Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (1981), Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor (1989), Ancestors: In Search of Human Origins (1994), and From Lucy to Language (1996). Johanson has also hosted a number of educational television series and films on human evolution.