The discovery of a partial Australopithecus afarensis skeleton—commonly referred to as “Lucy”—was arguably one of the most exciting paleontological discoveries of the 20th century. One of the men behind it, Yves Coppens, died on June 22 at the age of 87, according to a Twitter announcement posted by his editor.
Born in the Brittany region of France in 1934, Coppens was raised by a geologist father and concert pianist mother. He had been interested in paleontology from a young age, according to The Guardian. He cherished seeing iron age artifacts in his local museum and began collecting his own while still in school, submitting papers on his discoveries to archaeology journals.
Coppens studied natural sciences at the University of Rennes, graduating in 1956 before attending the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he earned a PhD in paleontology while also conducting research with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
While leading an expedition in Chad in 1961, Coppens discovered the first hominid fossils found in central Africa: a partial skull of what was then called Tchadanthropus uxoris and later correctly identified as Homo erectus. In 1967, he discovered a 2.5-million-year-old jawbone of Australopithecus aethiopicus, according to The Guardian.
In 1974, Coppens joined paleontologist Donald Johanson and geologist Maurice Taieb on an expedition to the Hadar Formation in Ethiopia’s Afar region. Around six years earlier, Taieb found snail fossils in that region and thought there might be evidence of ancient humans as well. Indeed, the team would ultimately dig up bones comprising roughly 40 percent of a bipedal hominin that lived 2.9–3.9 million years ago. The small female was dubbed “Lucy” in homage to the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which the crew listened to at the camp.
While Johanson found the first of Lucy’s bones, in France Coppens is widely regarded as her discoverer. Coppens is credited as a codiscoverer of five other hominin species as well.
In 1969, Coppens became a lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and in 1980, he became the chair of anthropology at the museum. That same year, he also became director of the Museum of Man in Paris, according to Le Monde. Coppens became the chair of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France in 1983 after leaving the National Museum of Natural History, and held that position until his retirement in 2005. Late in his career, he worked on two documentaries about human evolution and one on primate communities.
Coppens was given many awards and accolades throughout his career. In 2013, he was made a grand officer in France’s Legion of Honor, its second-highest award. The following year, he was nominated to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an organization within Vatican City. He was also a member of the UK’s Royal Anthropological Institute.
He is survived by his wife and son.