The death of Yves Coppens, one of "fathers" of Lucy, leaves paleontology an orphan

France loses one of its great men. I lose the friend who entrusted me with all his work“, was moved by its editor Odile Jacob, announcing the death of the scientist on Twitter.

World-renowned paleontologist, professor emeritus at the prestigious Collège de France and member of the Academy of Sciences, Yves Coppens has devoted his life to recounting the human epic, which he knew how to make accessible to all thanks to his talent as a storyteller.

Alone on stage, facing the public, I am very happy“, he said to Le Monde, last January, admitting “enjoy this little stardom“.

The announcement of his death, following a long illness, triggered a shower of tributes in the scientific community.

The Minister of Research, Sylvie Retailleau, hailed the legacy of this “passionate and fascinating researcher, excellent pedagogue“.

He showed the way to a whole generation of researchers. He was our model and our support.“, tweeted the paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin known for having discovered the oldest known representative of Homo sapiens in Morocco (315,000 years).

For the president of Inrap (National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research), Dominique Garcia, “Lucy’s father leaves many orphans“.

We are all heirs of Yves Coppens“, told AFP Antoine Balzeau, researcher at the CNRS and the Museum of Man.

This paleoanthropologist emphasizes the role “gigantic public, media and political” that Yves Coppens played in the 1970s for “make our disciplines popular“.”In France, the history of Man is extremely positive, and Yves Coppens has a lot to do with it.“, explains Antoine Balzeau.

Born in August 1934 in Vannes, in Morbihan, Yves Coppens caught very young “the exotic“, the attraction of elsewhere, told the scientist in an interview with AFP, in 2018, on the occasion of the release of his book “Origin of Man, Origin of a Man“.

He recounted his passion for archeology and his successful expeditions to Africa, saying to himself, at 83, “inhabited and haunted by prehistory“.

I was very attracted to archeology, but also to travel. Perhaps because, in my Breton maternal family, there were a lot of seafarers“, he said in a recent interview with Le Monde.

-the face of paleontology-

Yves Coppens went on an expedition to Africa from 1960, starting with Algeria and Chad.

In 1967, he discovered a 2.6 million year old bipedal hominid fossil in the Omo River Valley (Ethiopia).

But with his 1974 expedition into the Afar Depression he would become one of the most famous faces in paleontology.

With the geologist Maurice Taieb and the American Donald Johanson, they brought to light 52 fragments of bones. It was at the time the most complete hominid fossil ever found. Researchers dub her Lucy, after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“by labeling the bones. It is Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 million years old.

Because of her bipedalism, scientists have long believed that Lucy was the “grandmother of mankind“. But for Yves Coppens who presented himself as one of his “dads“, Lucy is rather from a very old cousin.

During his prolific career, he notably chaired the scientific council responsible for the conservation of the Lascaux cave, before passing the torch in 2017.

This enthusiast of the past was also concerned about the future.

In 2002, it prepared the Environmental Charter desired by President Jacques Chirac and which will be incorporated into the French Constitution in 2005.

Before the disease prevailed, he had confided to being tormented by one of the great mysteries of evolution: “what our common ancestor looked like with chimpanzees ten million years ago“.


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