Paleontologist Yves Coppens, co-discoverer of Lucy, is dead

“As with any person, as, a fortiori, with any traveling scientist, many adventures have happened to me! » From the introduction to his latest book, A mammoth memory (Odile Jacob, 448 p., 24.90 euros), published at the end of May, where he narrates a life in the service of science “companion of charm and rigor”, Yves Coppens adopted the tone of the storyteller which earned him the recognition and affection of the general public. The paleontologist, professor at the College de France, died on Wednesday June 22 at the age of 87, announced his editor, on behalf of his family.

Yves Coppens is inseparably linked to Lucy, a small Australopithecus 3.2 million years old, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia during an international mission that he co-directed with the American Donald Johanson and the French geologist Maurice Taieb. It was the latter, who died in July 2021, who put the team on the trail of this fossil, soon to be considered the grandmother of humanity – or its great-aunt, depending on the interpretation. And Yves Coppens, who had captured most of the light attached to this discovery in France, did not hide the debt he owed to his near-contemporary, forgotten by the media.

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“A page in our history is turning”

“After the death of Maurice Taieb and that of Yves Coppens, a page in our history is turned. He made the link with the pioneers of African paleontology such as Camille Arambourg or Louis Leakey.deplores Brigitte Senut, paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. “Yves Coppens was an elegant person in life and in science”underlines the co-discoverer in 2000 in Kenya ofOrrorin tugenensis, a hominin fossil nearly 6 million years old. According to her, he was one of those rare « patrons » never to impose his views on his students and collaborators – he had co-supervised and supervised his theses. “He was also the first popularizer of our discipline, for which he did a lotshe greets. He will not be replaced. »

Paleoanthropologist Michel Brunet shares the same emotion: “I have just lost a very dear friend, my college roommate from the College de France. » The two men indeed shared the same office in rue d’Ulm decorated with reproductions of skulls and memories of distant expeditions – at his home Yves Coppens placed these memorabilia alongside a distinction of Mickey’s diary, “one of my greatest prides”. “We were never together in the field, but I followed in his footsteps in East Africa and then in Chad, which he had traveled during his military service. » Michel Brunet had asked his predecessor for permission, graciously given. “He told me a few years ago that he was sure I wouldn’t find anything there”says Michel Brunet, not insensitive to the irony, that Yves Coppens practiced as a master: it is in Chad that Toumaï, a hominin fossil 7 million years old, will be discovered.

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