David Tett Interviews Don Johanson

David Tett, co-founder of Bushtracks Expeditions and Incredible Africa 2020’s expedition leader, interviewed Don Johanson, renowned paleoanthropologist and one of Incredible Africa 2020’s expedition hosts about Incredible Africa, Lucy and human evolution.

David: “So Don, welcome to Bushtracks headquarters here in Sonoma wine country.  I’m very excited to be hosting our Africa jet trip with you next year.  You are a paleoanthropologist, and I wanted to ask you to give us a brief explanation of what you do well.

Don: Thanks very much David. You know – we’ve worked together in the past and this is a real joy to be able to be on this phenomenal trip to go the length of Africa. But, I was trained as an anthropologist, someone who studies humankind – and both from the cultural point of view and the biological point of view – and the paleoanthropologist is someone who studies human origins.  The origins of where we come from.  Going out trying to find fossils and put together the geometry of that family tree that ultimately led to modern Jew.

David: I wanted [to discuss], if you could tell us, who Lucy is and how we are related to her.


Lucy skull

Don: Well, 1974 was the pivotal year in my life for sure . I was running an expedition in Northeastern Ethiopia in the afar region of the Great Rift Valley and in late November of that year I was out surveying – looking at the ground, hoping to find something, and spotted a little fragment of elbow, and that led to about 40% of a skeleton of an individual who lived 3.2 million years ago.  And, when we were celebrating and camped that night and the tape recorder was playing sergeant pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, one of the members of the expedition said Don ‘If you really think this is a female, why don’t we name her Lucy after ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamond’ and that’s how she picked up her name.

Don (continues): She’s come to be a very important and significant piece of our ancestry that has illuminated a period of time that has laid dark for a very very long time.  We just couldn’t get back beyond three million years.  And once we did that, it was filled with revelation about how we became human.


Aerial view of Victoria Falls from a drone

Don (continues): Africa’s Great Rift Valley and Eastern Africa that runs all the way through the Red Sea down to Mozambique is one of the most majestic geological structures on the planet.  It’s like an enormous Grand Canyon that samples a great length of time and diversity.  It has provided some of the most extensive evidence in terms of the fossil evidence for human evolution and the associated stone tools, climate change, what kinds of animals they lived with and interacted with – so it’s played a crucial role to understanding of human origins.

David: I personally am fascinated by the Rift Valley.  I’ve traveled up and down it many times and you obviously – you know – have worked in it for many, many years and so I’m really looking forward to traveling down the Rift Valley with you and learning a lot more about it.


Map of Incredible Africa itinerary

David (continues): What advantage do you think there is in traveling the length of Africa from North to South?  We’ve got a huge amount of diversity and many different latitudes and we’re doing this in a single journey.  What do you think the advantage there is?

Don: That diversity is what has made Africa so extraordinary and unique and special and that’s – I think – why we as humans… have evolved there, because [there were] many opportunities of the latitudinal differences, differences in climate from an absolute dried desert – where you would probably not last very long, to dense tropical rainforest – it used to stretch all the way across Africa, to open savanna grasslands.  And it shows you the diversity of the environment, but at the same time you get to see the diversity of animals. You see that natural selection has crafted those animals to be successful in particular habitats, and when we look through that lens of evolutionary change, we can begin to understand how humans were crafted in those environments.  It’s really a laboratory that we’ll be traveling in to understand the diversity of life in the past, the diversity there is today, and how we – as humans – also survive the whims and caprices of evolutionary change.


Wild Mountain Gorilla surrounded by leaves

David: During this journey on our way back up from Cape Town as we head towards Egypt, we’re going to… have the option to go gorilla trekking [in Rwanda].

Don: … When we look across that vast species gap between ourselves and gorillas, for example… there’s a connection.  There’s a connection that takes us back maybe ten million years when there was a common ancestor to this entire group of apes.  We’re the upright ape or, as Desmond Morris called us, the naked ape, and it gives us an opportunities to look back in time to what, perhaps, our ancestors acted like and looked like a little bit – we didn’t evolve from… gorillas – and the other thing that we will learn is that these animals have lived in a very natural environment, and it reminds us of the very artificial environment in which we live.

David: Thank you very much for coming up to wine country today and chatting about this incredible trip next year in September.

Don: Well, you’re most welcome.  I also am very excited, I mean… I could live in Africa, really, and people who choose to come on this trip will return very changed, and in fact they’ll be returned very enriched, and I think they’ll understand their place in the natural world better than they ever have before, and they will have visited their homeland.


See Lucy skeleton during Incredible Africa

The first version of this article was posted on 02 Dec 2019 at 3:52 PM.