Obituary of Yves Coppens | Paleontology

Yves Coppens, who died at the age of 87, was celebrated in France as a public scientist and the discoverer of Lucy, a key fossil in the story of early humanity and its denouement. In the early 1970s, as an experienced archaeological digger, he was asked by Maurice Taieb, a French geologist, to join an expedition to Ethiopia. Taieb had high hopes for Hadar, a remote desert location he had recognized for its fossil possibilities. He had also brought Donald Johanson, an ambitious young American paleontologist, joined by Tom Gray, a research student. What happened next suited a fossil named after a song that may or may not celebrate a psychedelic drug.

In 1974, Gray and Johanson found bone fragments that they immediately recognized as hominins (more like us than chimpanzees). Over three weeks, the team forensically collected one of the earliest and most complete human – or pre-human, as Coppens would say – skeletons known, later attributed to a new species walking upright, Australopithecus afarensis, living about 3.2 million years ago. On the first evening, however, as they celebrated the find at camp with beer and music tapes, the tiny female creature represented by the fossils acquired the name Lucy, after the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Johanson had hoped such a find would make a name for himself and exploited every media opportunity to promote himself, exaggerating his role, some felt at the time. In France, meanwhile, Taieb, as project manager, could justify his claim to be responsible, while Coppens was content to let the press report that he was the one who found and named Lucy. In truth, such a breakthrough was a project achievement, involving many people (including local men recruited as researchers), but in public lore, Lucy was found by Johanson (if you speak English) or Coppens (if you speak French).

For Coppens, it gave a global project a lasting French voice that helped to strengthen his professional status and his work as a science popularizer. For there was more to his career than this fossil.

From an early age, he possessed an instinctive passion for escapism of a genre that animated many 20th-century travel writers. Later in life he compared himself to heroic male explorers, the filmmakers – diver and volcanologist respectively – Jacques Cousteau and Haroun Tazieff. This craving manifested itself in what Coppens called his two “pathologies” – obsessions with “the exotic(exoticism), especially Africa and tropical Asia, and with archeology and history. The two pathologies flourish in unison between 1960 and 1984, in the second of the three parts in which he divides his life (sandwiched between Brittany and Paris), spent in Africa, in search of human fossils.

However, he remains deeply attached to Brittany where he was born, in the historic town of Vannes, son of René Coppens, professor of geology, and Andrée Dagorne, concert pianist (Yves was a church organist as a teenager). Initially, he pursued his interests with the Iron Age tribes and Roman invaders of Morbihan, first in books, then in a local museum full of “magical objects” (with a library accessible by a staircase stone spiral staircase smelling of “freshness, humidity and the peeing cat”), and finally on the ground, when he saw he saw the baked clay debris of the Gallo-Roman saltworks springing from the ground on the bank Breton.

Excited by this “revelation”, he found 40 other such sites, collecting thousands of shards and publishing his findings in the local archaeological journal – while still a schoolboy at the Lycée Jules Simon in Vannes. He studied natural sciences at the University of Rennes, became a research fellow at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) and began a doctorate on elephants and mammoths at the University of Paris-Sorbonne when he was not is only 22 years old – when he is forced to choose between paleontology and cinema, another childhood passion (he was briefly assistant to director Agnès Varda).

In 1959, Coppens joined the Institute of Paleontology at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris, beginning geological fieldwork in Africa the following year, mounting expeditions to Chad (where his team found a highly publicized skull which he said represented a newly identified one million year old hominid, now recognized as probably modern), Ethiopia, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania, and Indonesia and the Philippines.

He became deputy director in 1969, then director in 1980 of the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Man in Paris. In 1983, he was appointed professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, becoming honorary professor on his retirement in 2005. In 2002, he chaired the Coppens commission, responsible for drafting an environmental charter which recognizes the rights and environmental protection duties in French law. .

A skilled scientist, Coppens popularized a theory of human origins which he dubbed the East Side Story, in which the creation of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa isolated two early populations, which later evolved into chimpanzees at the west and humans to the east. the current understanding is that the pattern he observed was not a reflection of antiquity, but of where the fossils had been kept and found. He also supported a theory of “multi-regional evolution”, which proposed the simultaneous appearance of modern humans across Africa and Eurasia, opposed to a widely accepted Out of Africa theory in which we evolved on this continent before migrating.

Coppens has published, he says, nearly 1,000 academic articles on human and vertebrate palaeontology, archeology and prehistory, and numerous books, including two autobiographical studies, Origins of Man, Origins of a Man: Memoirs (2018) and A Mammoth Memory. (2022); in Le Savant, Le Fossile et Le Prince (2020), he shamelessly collected memories of encounters with French presidents and world royalty.

He was a popular lecturer and interviewee, with French broadcasters giving him control of content that British scientists could only dream of: in three television films directed by Jacques Malaterre, L’Odyssée de l’Espèce (2003, A Species Odyssey ), Homo Sapiens (2005) and Le Sacre de l’Homme (2007, The Rise of Man), he was credited as scientific director or writer.

His achievements in research and science popularization have been widely recognized with honors and awards. He was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor) and was a member of learned organizations around the world, including the Royal Institute of Anthropology and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. An asteroid and several French schools or colleges bear his name.

His enthusiastic curiosity for the past never waned. “Prehistory”, he wrote when he was in his eighties, “continues to possess me, to haunt me”.

In 1959, he married Françoise Le Guennec, a fellow CNRS researcher who accompanied him on his African expeditions. The marriage was dissolved and in 2004 he married Martine Lebrun. She and their son, Quentin, survive him.

Yves Jean Édouard Coppens, paleontologist, born August 9, 1934; passed away on June 22, 2022

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