It’s true: the world’s most famous skeleton really was named after a Beatles song. And once she was “Lucy,” she became more than just a scientific specimen.
Question: Is it true that “Lucy” was named after “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”?
Donald Johanson: The origins of Lucy’s name. I had a girlfriend on the expedition whose name was Pamela, and we were celebrating the discovery. Of course this was a major discovery. Here is 40% of a skeleton, 3.2 million years old. It was pretty mind-blowing, and I had been, always had been a great Beatles fan, so we had Beatles tapes playing on a little Sony tape recorder, and the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album was playing and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing and Pamela said, “Well if you think that this specimen is a female why don’t you name her Lucy?” And I thought wow, well you know, I’m a scientist. It should have a scientific name. I just got my PhD at the University of Chicago. We shouldn’t give cute little names to these fossils. Yet, it was too late. Once that word was uttered the next morning at breakfast students said, “Are we going back to the Lucy site?” “Do you think we’ll find more of Lucy’s skull?” “How old do you think Lucy was when she died?” And all of a sudden she started to become a personality. She was identifiable as an individual. She was not just Afar Locality 288, which is the entry in our log book. That’s her catalog number. She became a person and a personality, and what is interesting about that is I think if we sat around the table and said, “Well what should we name this specimen?” “Should we give it a name?” it never would have worked, so it was just pure serendipity, the name stuck.
Recorded on March 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen