book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time

Book Review: Lucy

Lucy: The Beginnings of HumankindLucy: the Beginnings of Humankind

by Donald Johanson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book as research for a paleo-historic drama I’m writing on the life of earliest man. My characters are Homo habilines (the earliest species of our own genus, Homo), but they cohabited Africa with Australopithecines (the genus that immediately preceded Homo and considered to be our forbears), of which the inimitable Lucy is by far the most famous. Unlike today where we–Homo sapiens sapiens–share the planet with no other Homo species, these two early iterations of man lived within hunting distance of each other and often collided in their daily efforts to survive the treacherous environs they called home.

To understand the co-stars of my story, I turned to the man considered by many as the guru of earliest man: Donald Johanson, and his amazing paleoanthropologic find, Lucy.


In his book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (Touchstone Simon & Schuster 1990), Johanson and co-author Maitland Edey tell the fascinating tale of how they found Lucy, the most complete skeleton ever uncovered of an Australopithecene (the genus that immediately precedes Homo in the timeline).


Prior to this find, Johanson was merely one of many paleoanthropologists in search of man’s roots, maybe the misunderstood ‘missing link’ (most scientists today believe the gradual evolution of our species means there is no euphemistic ‘missing link’, just a steady change of our physiology in response to environmental factors). Johanson got an idea, followed it despite adversity, disbelievers, money problems and set-backs.

These, he chronicles in the book, sharing every step of his journey with an easy-going writing style, breaking down the complicated science to an amateur’s understanding and sharing his innermost thoughts on his discovery and how it changed then-current thinking on man’s evolution.

I learned not only about Lucy, but how paleoanthropologists do their field work, what their days are like…



…how they fight to prepare for an expedition, and the politics they must solve both to get there and get back. Johanson also includes well-written descriptions on the background of human evolution, field work in East Africa, the paleo-historic geology of Olduvai Gorge (the famed location where Leakey uncovered so much of our primeval roots), the discussion among scientists that pinned down the human-ness of the genus Homo and what differentiated it from older genus like Australopithecines (Lucy’s genus), other animals Lucy likely lived with and survived despite of…



…how Lucy’s age was definitively dated, and more.

Johanson jumps right in with the Prologue, telling us how Lucy came to be discovered, and then takes us back to the story of how he got there and what happened after. Through Lucy’s story, we learn about man’s beginnings and who this earliest forebear was. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • She had lain silently in her adamantine grave for millennium after millennium until the rains at Hadar had brought her to light again
  • Bands of Homo erectus would wait in the valleys between the hills for the big game herds that migrated south for the winter. They drove the game into swamps by setting grass fires.
  • Big men have big brains, but they are no smarter than small men. Men are also larger than women and have consistently larger brains, but the two sexes are of equal intelligence
  • Desert people the world over shun wadis or defiles as campsites
  • The ash became wet and, almost like a newly laid cement sidewalk, began taking clear impressions of everything that walked across it
  • You don’t gradually go from being a quadruped to being a biped. What would the intermediate stage be–a triped? I’ve never seen one of these.
  • You might not think that erect walking has anything to do with sex, but it has, it has
  • If one is to jump and snatch, one had better be able to judge distances accurately.
  • The way to precise distance judgment is via binocular vision: focusing two eyes on an object to provide depth perception
  • The chimpanzee…is the most adaptable of the apes.
  • A hen is an egg’s way of getting another egg.


For some truly beautiful and realistic drawings of man’s predecessors, check out Jay Matternes.

More books about early man:

Runaway Brain

Origin of Humankind

Meeting Prehistoric Man

Jacqui Murray is the author of dozens of books (on technology in education) as well as the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Lucy

  1. Pingback: Writing a Novel: How I’m Doing on Born in a Treacherous Time I | WordDreams...

  2. Pingback: Three Great Books I Read Over the Holiday | WordDreams...

  3. This book does sound interesting, especially as a contribution to my current research for ‘Boulters Green’. I am restricting my area to the European connection, principally Heidelbergensis, Neanderthalensis and so on (god, those spellings!) but I should be using a broader brush. Nice pictures – I’m sure at least one of my neighbours is in there.


    • And there’s Gran Dolina in Spain. I actually have my characters migrating from Africa, through the Middle East, across Italy to Gran Dolina where they meet up with a similar species to their own. This, of course, is 800,000 years ago!

      Bouters Green–is that in England? Heidelbergensis and Neanderthalensis are in my future, maybe Book 4.

      Tell me about your book? It sounds perfect for my interests.


    • It sounds like the gamut, but it all started as research. I’d get a question–could Lucy have *****??? And then I’d go to the library, find a book that might answer that question, and read.


  4. The value of this book hasn’t diminished with the passage of time. It’s compelling story of the growth of paleoanthropology in the 20th Century remains unmatched. Johanson’s role should be known to most, but this personal relation endures as a landmark for those interested in the development of humanity. He’s given us a lucid story of the life and work of the paleoanthropologist both in the field and laboratory. He is candid in assessing other workers and himself in tracing the line of descent from ape-like creatures to modern humans.


  5. An excellent review.
    It is amazing to think how much has been discovered since this book was first published.
    I’m thinking primarily of the Denisovans, DNA sequencing of existing populations to map the influence of Neanderthal and Denisovan in modern humans, and also the dating of cave art such as hand stencils.


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