Paris, Jun 22, 2022 (AFP) – French paleontologist Yves Coppens, one of the “fathers” of the Australopithecus Lucy, whose discovery deepened knowledge about the origins of humanity, died on Wednesday at the age of 87.
“Yves Coppens left us this morning. My sadness is immense,” tweeted editor Odile Jacob, praising “an enormous sage.” “I lose a friend who entrusted all of his work to me. France loses one of its great men,” he added.
The scientist died as a result of a long illness, the editor told AFP.
This fossil hunter has assumed throughout his life the mission of telling a vast audience the fabulous story of the origin of humanity, also in constant evolution, thanks to the discoveries of new fossils. He began his expeditions in the 1960s, in Algeria and Chad.
In 1974, Coppens carried out excavations in the Ethiopian region of Afar, with an international team that included his geologist friend Maurice Taieb and the American Donald Johanson. The searches allowed the exhumation of 52 bone fragments. It was the most complete hominid fossil ever found.
Scientists nicknamed him Lucy, in reference to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which they used to hear. They were the remains of a 3.2-million-year-old specimen of Australopithecus afarensis.
Being bipedal, Lucy was long considered “the grandmother of humanity”, and Donald Johanson still thinks so. But for Yves Coppens and other paleontologists, it is more of a “distant cousin” of our species.
Coppens, who introduced himself as one of Lucy’s “fathers”, made other expeditions, in the Philippines, Indonesia, Siberia, China and Mongolia. He was co-discoverer of six hominids.
Coppens was born on August 9, 1934, in the French city of Vannes. His father was a nuclear physicist, but the boy quickly found his calling. “At age 7 or 8, I wanted to become an archaeologist,” he told AFP in 2016.
The paleontologist was not only concerned with past epochs, but also with the future of humanity. In 2002, at the request of the then French president, Jacques Chirac, he drafted the Charter for the Environment, integrated into the French Constitution of 2005.
Coppens confessed that he was still obsessed with one of the great mysteries of evolution: “what our common ancestor with chimpanzees looked like 10 million years ago.”
The announcement of Coppens’ death generated numerous tributes in France, both official and from colleagues.