Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Joy of Reading Lucy's Legacy

It was indeed a pleasure to read Lucy's Legacy by Donald Johanson and Kate Wong for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Science Challenge. Annie may feel that I'm stretching things by using this as a book with a relative in the title, but Lucy is a relative, and I feel very certain that Donald Johanson would agree with me on this point. I thought I might get to meet Dr. Johanson this month, as Philadelphia is celebrating the year of evolution in 2008-2009, and Dr. Johanson was slated to speak in April. It was, however, April of 2008 and not 2009. Such is my luck.
This very well written and easy to read book has three parts. The first part is basically a history of the discovery of Lucy (the famous Austalopithecus afarensis skeleton found in 1974) and a travelogue of Dr. Johanson's work in Ethiopia in the intervening years. This part of the book gives us a good idea of the political problems paleontologists face when working in foreign countries, especially ones with unstable governments that are prone to being overthrown. It also gives us a good idea of what it's like being on an expedition to such a place. This is the longest section of the book, and it basically discusses what Dr. Johanson has been up to since discovering Lucy. He and his team have discovered hundreds of A. afarensis fossils so that now this is one of the best known and understood species of hominid. One of the things I like about this book is that the authors prefer the term hominid to hominin. I am so totally with them on this point.
The second section of the book is about Lucy's ancestors. The inside cover of the book has a very nice hominid family tree (phylogeny for us nerds) and the authors walk us through the earliest of the hominids. We learn about their discovery, what is known about their biology, and of course, the controversies concerning their biology. Paleoanthropologists are well known to disagree about all aspects of the biology of fossil hominids and we gain a nice insiders view of some of the debates. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on hominids, but I learned quite a bit from this section.
The final section was about Lucy's descendants. We learn about Homo habilis, erectus, ergaster, neanderthalensis, and a bit about our own species Homo sapiens. As with the previous section, this section has a lot of information about discoveries and debates among researchers.
Overall, this is a very quick read. It is written for mostly general readers as opposed to specialists in the field of paleoanthropology. The only regret I have after reading it is that I won't be able to go back in time to 2008 and get my copy signed. I will have to keep an eye out for Dr. Johanson. He is a man that I would definitely like to meet and have a beer with. I highly recommend this book.

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