An Unexpected Meeting
Today I’m writing about history, not textile history, but human evolutionary history.
Every once in a while, you meet someone truly by chance. Last fall we were visiting friends in Asheville, NC. Visiting, and, of course, shopping in Historic Biltmore Village. One of our favorite type of retail stores is a nature-related shop. We like hunting out the squirrel-proof bird feeders, and trying on those vests with all the pockets. We don’t have a use for the feeders where we live now, but when we lived back east those squirrels drove us crazy, so I guess we are drawn to them by habit.
We happened into a lovely shop, The Compleat Naturalist, Ltd.
While browsing the book selection (we don’t need to frustrate hungry squirrels, but I never met a book which could not add to my intellectual curiosity) an elderly gentleman approached us. I assumed he was a service clerk, but as it turned out he was the owner, Hal Mahan.
He asked if I knew about “Lucy”. As we were looking in the anthropology section, I knew he meant Lucy, one of the earliest hominids discovered, as it happened, 40 years ago.
Mr. Mahan and his wife, Laura, had retired to Asheville but he could not retire from his love of natural science. His academic studies were at Michigan State University with a master’s and doctorate degree in zoology. In the 1960’s Mahan, while working at Central Michigan University, established a museum training program for graduate students who had difficulty finding jobs in academia. He later became director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Eight of these post-graduate students eventually became directors of museums. It was one of his protégés that brings us to Lucy. Mahan was to meet with Richard Leakey, the director of the Kenya Natural Museum in Nairobi who told of his expeditions and of his interest in Mahan’s training program. Don Johansen was recommended to Leakey and soon he was part of a field expedition in Hadar, Ethiopia. He was soon to telegraph Mahan ( who was doing field work in a neighboring African country) of his discovery. Lucy was found nearly 44% complete, rather than the odd tooth or bit of bone and came to live at the Cleveland Museum for study.
Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 1981
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, written by Johansen and Maitland Edey is the story of the discovery and final accreditation of Australopithecus afarensis, nicknamed Lucy.
Usually, these anthropologic tales are a bit too scientific for the non-paleontologist (like me). But this is a very well written volume that begins with the earliest finds in the 18th and 19th C and the controversies that seem to follow every scientific discovery.
I am now immersed in the reading of Lucy, thanks to a chance meeting with one of the most interesting persons I have encountered in quite a while.