Johanson, Donald 1943-
Donald Carl Johanson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 28, 1943. He earned a BA from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1966 and an MA and a PhD from the University of Chicago’s Anthropology Department in 1970 and 1974, respectively. Johanson wrote his doctoral thesis on variability in the dentitions of bonobos and chimpanzee subspecies, chiefly under the guidance of Albert A. Dahlberg, the founder of U.S. dental anthropology. Before getting his doctorate, Johanson worked variously on archaeological projects in Iowa and Illinois, as a research assistant in a dental anthropological study on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and as a research assistant to F. Clark Howell with the Omo Research Expedition to the Lower Omo Basin, Ethiopia (1970–1971).
In 1972 Johanson joined the International Afar Research Expedition to Ethiopia’s Afar Depression, where the following year he found four Pliocene hominid fossils, consisting of femoral fragments and a knee joint (A.L. 129–1), that clearly indicated bipedal posture. Initially, Johanson thought that more than one species was represented, but when the sample was greatly augmented by the discovery in 1974 of a notable portion of a skeleton (AL-288–1, dubbed “Lucy”), and a large collection of remains of hominids at locality 333 (dubbed “the first family”) in 1975–1977, he came to believe that the findings represented a variable single species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 3 and nearly 4 million years ago. Furthermore, he concluded that contemporaneous specimens from 3.5-million-year-old deposits at Laetoli, Tanzania, discovered by a team led by Mary Leakey, were also Australopithecus afarensis. Johanson’s use of one of the Laetoli mandibles (LH-4) as the type specimen for Australopithecus afarensis and his negative comments about Richard, Mary, and Louis Leakey and other professional colleagues in Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (1981) and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor (1989) and on the lecture circuit detracted from his overall scientific credibility among some peers. Nonetheless, Johanson stands as the foremost U.S. contributor to the hominid fossil record during the 1970s, the 1980s, and the early 1990s.
Beginning in 1972 Johanson served as a curator of anthropology, then of physical anthropology, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and was on the faculties of Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. In 1981 he founded the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) in Berkeley, California. In 1998 the IHO relocated to the University of Arizona, where Johanson continues as director and occupies the Virginia M. Ullman Chair in Human Origins. He and his colleagues at IHO have continued to augment knowledge and understanding of human development via empirical paleoanthropological data from the field, educational television films—most notably, Lucy in Disguise (1980), The First Family (1980), and In Search of Human Origins (1994)—public lectures, presentations at scientific meetings, and publications. Johanson has also trained many doctoral and postdoctoral students, some of whom are from Ethiopia and other nations where hominid fossils are found.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Archaeology; Leakey, Richard; Primates
Johanson, Donald, and Maitland Armstrong Edey. 1981. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Johanson, Donald, and James Shreeve. 1989. Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor. New York: Morrow.
Kalb, Jon. 2001. Adventures in the Bones Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression. New York: Copernicus Books.
Swisher, Carl C., III, Garniss H. Curtis, and Roger Lewin. 2000. Java Man: How Two Geologists’ Dramatic Discoveries Changed Our Understanding of the Evolutionary Path to Modern Humans. New York: Scribner’s.
Tuttle, Russell H. 2002. Paleoanthropology Read in Tooth and Nail. Reviews in Anthropology 31 (2): 103–128.
Russell H. Tuttle