Lucy’s dad no longer exists. The prominent French paleontologist Yves Coppens died on June 22, 2022 at the age of 87. We owe him, along with the American Donald Joganson and the Frenchman Maurice Taieb, the 1974 discovery of the fossil of Australopithecus Lucy in Ethiopia.
The story went around the world: on November 30, 1974, in Hadar, in the lower Awash Valley, in Ethiopia, the international team of scientists, together with Yves Coppens, discovered a complete Australopithecus fossil of 40%.
Garden and bipedal, its 3.2 million years make it the oldest fossil ever discovered at that time. As a tribute to the famous Beatles song, which characterizes the team’s research, he is nicknamed Lucy. Better than AL-288, its first name. Movies, books, shows take over the discovery and Lucy and her discoverers become famous.
But Yves Coppen’s career does not begin or end with this basic discovery of paleontology. It is measured in kilograms, or even in tons of excavated fossils, whether they are mammoths or hominids.
From Brittany to Ethiopia, via Siberia. Born in Vannes in 1934, this son became a professor of nuclear physics and a pianist very early on interested in the mysteries of prehistory and archeology. The proximity to the archeological site of Carnac, where row after row of menhirs and megaliths are exposed, fascinates the young Breton.
Barely 10 years old, shortly after the war, he joined a learned archeological community and began what would remain the passion of his life: excavations and exploration. He will say it himself, in a book published in 2020, The Savant, the Fossil and the Prince, from the lab to the palace: “You could say that my career is a long-term childhood, which was not upset.”
A fluent and fast course, which touches on all stages of the cursus honorum for French scientific research. After a bachelor’s degree in experimental sciences at Vannes and a license in science at the University of Rennes, followed by a doctorate at the Sorbonne, he started at CNRS at the age of 22 as a research assistant. No glory in this flawless journey, he hardens with humor: at the time, CNRS recruited.
At the National Museum of Natural History, paleontologist René Lavocat asked him in 1959 to determine the teeth of the proboscis, the prehistoric elephants on which his dissertation is based. They come from fossils discovered by geologists in Africa. The young Coppens took the bait of what he would call his “exotite”, and joined there in January 1960.
In an Africa in the middle of a struggle for independence, he sets up expeditions and searches through the lands of different countries. ChadEthiopia, South Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Siberia … These trips led him to become interested in hominids, our ancient “parents”, and to stay away from elephants for a while.
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A “researcher in the city” If Lucy is the most famous, the researcher dates his greatest discovery from 1975, when he associates environmental change and the birth of men. Relentlessly curious, he developed theories throughout his career, even if it meant sometimes making mistakes and acknowledging his mistakes. He thus acknowledges in 2014 that Homo Sapiens really came out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, and that he was not born “just everywhere else”.
Ambitious research and academic success in rubble – he is a member of 11 academies, including the prestigious Academy of Sciences – that does not shield him from the world and its news. Yves Coppens appreciates the figure as “the scientist in the city” and is thus chairing in 2002, at the request of Jacques Chirac, the Preparatory Commission for the Environmental Charter, which will serve as the basis for Grenelle and COP21.
Mischievous, he will offer this president with whom he gets along well, while “keeping a certain distance”, a tuft of mastodon hair, 20,000 years old.
A tireless popularist He is also a researcher who enjoys communicating, beyond the benches of the Musée de l’Homme, of which he was appointed director in 1980, or those of the Collège de France, where he holds the presidency of paleo-anthropology from 1983.
Coppens draws lessons for the present from his research on prehistory. Of the approximately 600 radio chronicles he produced for France Info, he wrote three books for the public, entitled “LePRESent du passé”. “I really like to stay up to date,” he explained from the Salon du Livre in Paris in 2014, surrounded by his work showing different profiles of Australopithecines. I like to put myself in a much broader perspective, so that the public can seize the interest[de mes recherches]and their boundaries. »
A taste for popularization and sharing, which this science smuggler cultivates in many ways. “I like people,” he says many times. “I respect humanity, I respect people and I respect all beliefs …”.
Humanist and optimist As a good paleontologist, he claims that this humanity is unique and has a common origin: “There are no white people, only discolored people! “, we had fun repeating.” We all come from the same species, born in the tropical African forests … “. Man thus embodies, above all, for him” the state of the most complicated matter hitherto “.
An openness to the world under the sign of science, which drives him to remain optimistic, even in the face of the prospect of climate change. “The future has always worried everyone”, the person who spoke out against cremation put in perspective, so as not to “destroy the tools of future paleontologists”. He has also promised to bequeath his skeleton to the Musée de l’Homme.
Coppens still expresses his taste for life and research in the message he leaves for future generations: “Do not be afraid of the future. Tomorrow will be great! Live your passions. Be reasoned, but above all not reasonable. And if you want to do research, if you want to have a happy life, go for it. »