I’ve wanted to hear Donald Johansen for a long time, so I was excited when the world-renowned anthropologist came to Kansas City last week to speak at the Linda Hall Library (one of my favorite spots in town, see previous post on Darwin).
He did not disappoint — he was humble and appreciative, and utterly captivated the sellout crowd from his first moments at the podium.
There was never any doubt of his expertise — his talk was peppered with the kinds of detail that require many speakers to check their notes, but he showed mastery and depth of knowledge, the sign of an inquisitive mind. He comfortably explained the mass spectrometry of argon dating, genomic records, the importance of fossilized pollen, how to perform skeletal comparisons.
But what made his talk stand out was his storytelling. He took us with him, back to that November day in 1974, along the wash in Hadar, Ethiopia.
He shows a photo of the landscape. He describes walking and turning his head, and his gaze settled on what he knew, immediately, was a humanoid elbow fragment.
“My mind was in the right place,” he said. “I had the right sense of discovery. I knew my life would change at that moment.“
His gaze extended, and he quickly spotted the other fragments that would make up the remains of “Lucy,” a 3.2 million year old humanoid ancestor, possibly the most famous fossil in the world.
A side note: We’re very lucky that the informal naming stuck — Lucy, by virtue of that simple and accessible name, became an individual to us. We began to be able to imagine her, specifically her, in a way that became familiar and understandable.
Johansen was right; his life changed in that moment.
His pursuit of knowledge, his quest to understand where we came from and what our existence means, became a deep responsibility. His search is for more than bones; he seeks out what makes us human.
He said he later realized that had he turned the other direction, had he not been prepared to see, he may never have had that moment.