French paleontologist Yves Coppens, discoverer of several hominid fossils including the famous Australopithecus Lucy, died on Wednesday June 22 at the age of 87, announced his editor Odile Jacob, hailing “a very great scientist”. “I lose the friend who entrusted me with all his work. France loses one of its great men,” added the editor. The scientist died following a long illness, the publishing house told AFP.
Born in Vannes in 1934, Yves Coppens turned to paleontology very early on. Initially a specialist in proboscideans, he launched his first excavations in Africa in the early 1960s, which directed him towards hominids. Director of the National Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Man, he multiplies theories to better understand the origins of man, as well as numerous popularization works (including documentaries The Odyssey of the Species, Homo sapiens and The Rite of Man). He held the chair of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France for a long time. In 2016, on the occasion of the release of one of his works, he returned in L’Express to the origin of man and the nature of races. Maintenance.
L’Express: We imagine that you are not a strong supporter of the idea of a “white race”…
Yves Coppens: Oh no, that’s for sure! You know, we all come from the same species, born in the tropical African forests. For fun, I often say that there are no white people, only bleached ones! It makes some people laugh, others don’t.
Where will the discoveries of tomorrow come from?
Probably from paleogenetics. In this respect, research has made considerable progress. Not so long ago, the great Pope of the discipline, Svante Pääbo, told me that, beyond 500,000 years, he had trouble finding and reading strands of DNA. Now it’s passed a million years, so it’s already better. But it is a science still in its infancy, which sometimes blasts a little too quickly, before retracting.
We noticed, for example, that on certain strands of DNA, viruses took the place of nucleotides, giving falsified results. Nevertheless, the progress of paleogenetics will help us to establish the filiations between human species. Not for Lucy that said, of which we found no strand of DNA! I am also thinking of understanding migration, from the first flight out of Africa to the settlement of the entire planet. It is a science in full development, which even makes us a little jealous: until then, paleontologists had hegemony over time, and here we are in competition with other scientists in white coats!
There is even talk of cloning a mammoth in the next few years. Finally, prehistory is the future?
Prehistory can be reborn, yes. With cloning, we can imagine the rebirth of creatures or plants that have disappeared. I have a Russian colleague who pulled seeds from the permafrost, set aside by a squirrel 30,000 years ago. This little squirrel had made her reserve, which she completely replanted and which allowed her to grow this prehistoric plant. Even if, in 30,000 years, on the botanical level, there are no radical transformations, it is an impressive start.
30,000 years ago, Neanderthals still roamed the planet…
Yes, and that’s what interests me! I am currently working in Siberia, precisely in the hope of finding a human corpse as old as this – a Homo sapiens who died 20,000 years ago, or, with any luck, a Neanderthal who died 50,000 years ago. There are mammoths as old as this. One day we discovered a baby mammoth that we called Khroma, which we dissected and autopsied in one of the rooms of the Puy-en-Velay hospital. And we found his mother’s milk in his stomach. So you can still get your hands on some interesting relics from the past.
Would that be enough to clone a mammoth?
A member of the Svante Pääbo team has figured out how to stitch up missing nucleotides. So obviously, if we add the strands to each other, it doesn’t make a complete DNA, it’s not as simple as that. That being said, from the moment we know how to make the missing nucleotides, the prospect of cloning no longer seems quite remote…
Tomorrow, the mammoth. The day after tomorrow, who knows, Neanderthal man… Doesn’t that pose ethical problems?
We do not yet know the limits of genetics, which scares some people. For my part, I do not understand when I am told that this can pose ethical problems. Of course, it is important to have an eye on the use that humanity makes of its progress. I was told that a committee of scientists had to be set up. Especially not ! A scientist to whom you tell that an experiment is possible, but that it can be harmful, will never back down. Myself, if I had the opportunity, I would be quite capable of embarking on the cloning of a prehistoric man.
“What makes sense makes sense”, you write in become human (Other). Does the man’s story have a meaning?
Oh, you know, science is cold! There’s no denominational history there. But what we can see is that the Universe began to be perceived 14 billion years ago, man 3 million years ago, and that the latter embodies the most complicated matter that we know. So there is a direction, which goes towards complication and organization.
Where does this movement come from? Where is he going? We do not know anything. Science, in these cases, likes to say, “That’s an open question.” It’s an elegance that suits me well. If other planets are at an adequate distance from their sun, and prove to be in a condition to preserve their atmosphere and their water, one can imagine that this is the reproduction of this same movement of complication, without being the identical replica, because evolution is the result of chance and choice. It would therefore be fascinating to discover other complex beings on these other planets.
How do you see the future of man?
For now, the future of humanity, technologically speaking, is lavish. We understand things better and better, even if there will always be mysteries. We are talking about genetic mutations, transhumanism. We are also starting to wander around in space, we plan to conquer Mars. We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress. And that excites me. If we colonize Mars in a few thousand years, then that will mean that we will have become another species, see another genus. And so the diversity that we have lost on Earth, through demography and circulation, could be reborn, in the form of astronomical diversity.