Editor’s Note: We spoke with Gene Dole of Englewood, Florida about being part of the expedition in 1974 that discovered the fossil of a new species called Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is widely regarded as one of the most important fossils ever discovered.
How did you get involved with the team that discovered Lucy in Ethiopia?
I was a Physical Anthropology student when Dr. Donald Johanson taught at Case Western Reserve University. He had a fossil that needed to be extracted from rock about the size of a small loaf of bread. I spent the weekend completing the project. He used this fossil to convince the National Institute of Science to fund the first expedition to the Afar Region of Ethiopia. In recognition of my contribution and capabilities, he invited me to be part of the expedition.
Who was Lucy and why is she important to our understanding of human evolution?
Lucy is a prehuman ancestor that lived about 3.3 million years ago. Her bones showed that the differential advantage which allowed our ancestors to survive was our fully developed bipedal locomotion (how we walk upright), and not our large brain which was the common interpretation. Lucy’s brain was about the size of a small modern chimpanzee.
Why is the bipedal locomotion important?
Lucy’s pelvis was shaped similarly to a modern female. This along with the leg bones allowed her to walk standing up for long periods of time. Bipedalism gave her the ability to cross open areas between forests quickly. This adaptation was critical for searching larger areas for food at a time when forest habitat was shrinking.
What are the main controversies surrounding the interpretations about Lucy?
At the time of her discovery, there were no early ancestor head bones found associated with bones from the rest of the body. She was the first fossil to have cranial and post-cranial bones. In recent times there have been numerous examples of complete skeletons found. With the proliferation of fossil ancestors, we know that there were multiple populations of our ancestors with slightly different adaptations. We are now trying to determine which populations gave rise to our later ancestors. The human tree of our evolution is much more complicated than earlier theories postulated. So the current controversies relating to Lucy have to do with “Where she fits on the tree?”
What can you share about the people you met in the region known as the Ethiopian Afar?
The native people in the area where Lucy was found, live in the lowest altitude of any land mass in the world at 147 meters below sea level. The area is known as the Afar Desert. It has some of the hottest and driest climate in the world. It is so inhospitable that it is the last place in the world where smallpox was eradicated. The natives have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years. They are very hardy people with beautiful complexions and stoic but friendly faces. I found them to be open, friendly, honest and curious. They thought we were nuts for spending so much time and effort to find pieces of rock.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to Englewood?
I grew up in a small town an hour west of Boise, Idaho. Moving to Englewood following my retirement allowed me to live near my daughter, Giuliana Melreit, and her children.
What can you share about your career managing medical
I started at the Cleveland Clinic where I managed the Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Department. We grew from 7 to 27 physicians during my tenure. I also worked for practices in Danbury, Connecticut and Dodge City, Kansas during my 38-year career.
What was it like working at the famous Cleveland Clinic for 13 years?
It was a fast pace and very demanding environment that exposed me to many cutting edge medical advances. My experience at the Cleveland Clinic allowed me to bring business discipline and ideas to independent physician medical groups in a spirit of patient centered health care.
What are some other travel adventures you’ve enjoyed over the years?
In the past 15 years, my travels have taken me to almost every State in the U.S., China (three times), Tibet, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, The Panama Canal, Maya ruins in Mexico, The Galapagos Island, the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Cuba.
Are you planning any future trips?
I’m planning to visit Prague and Budapest in May and Mongolia in July. After that a hike along the Inca Trail ending at Machu Picchu and then Lake Titicaca would be great.
How do you stay connected to the field of archeology and other enthusiasts?
I subscribe to Archaeology, Nature, Science, Science News and National Geographic. I belong to various groups including the Florida Anthropological Society. I’ve given a number of lectures to the Florida Gulf Coast University Lifelong Learning Center in Punta Gorda.
What’s the brief story of the big knife you brought home from Ethiopia?
All of the Afar men we met in Ethiopia had large sword sized knives strapped to their sides. It was a modern artifact of their culture. I traded my Swiss Army pocketknife for the bigger knife and it now hangs prominently in my living room.