Death of prehistoric pope Yves Coppens

The discoverer of Lucy, a former professor at the College de France, died at 87. A look back at an exceptional career in more ways than one. I subscribe for 1€ the 1st month

His office was cluttered with an astonishing jumble. In the midst of the countless letters and scientific journals he received daily and said he read scrupulously, there were three surprising objects. A prehistoric skull, a model sailboat (Eric Tabarly's Pen Duick) and a curious golden statuette representing Walt Disney's favorite mouse. “Mickey's Diary honored me by calling me a scientist of the future. It's my greatest pride! joked Yves Coppens when his visitors asked him about the purpose of this figurine. He died at the age of 87 on June 22, announced his editor Odile Jacob.

His whole life was summed up in these three objects. The boat referred to its Breton origins. Born on August 9, 1934 in Vannes, to a father who was a teacher at the Jules-Simon high school and a pianist mother, Yves Coppens had spent his childhood near Conleau, a small Breton peninsula attached to the Morbihan area in the 1930s. He had done part of his studies in Rennes. And, even if he had moved to Paris in the mid-1950s, he remained very attached to this land of sailors, where he returned regularly.

Stories of bones

The skull obviously referred to the discovery of Lucy, in November 1974. This skeleton of a prehistoric woman (recent studies question the sex of this individual), nearly 3.2 million years old, officially bore the scientific name of Autralopithecus afarensis, in reference to this region of Afar, in the northeast of Ethiopia, where it was discovered. But the members of the Franco-American mission, which he co-led with French geologist Maurice Taieb and American paleontologist Donald Johanson, renamed him Lucy in reference to a Beatles hit (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) which was on the radio at the time of his exhumation.

The Mickey Mouse, finally, summed up in itself the many scientific awards that had crowned his brilliant career. Child gifted in music, trained by his mother, friend of the virtuoso Micheline Ostermeyer, Yves Coppens had turned to the natural sciences to distinguish himself from his physicist father, close to Irène Joliot-Curie. The young Yves would most likely have become a secondary school teacher himself if he had not had a passion for archeology very early on.

How a vocation is born

His interest in the study of subsoils came to him in two stages, he said. In 1940, his father, demobilized, brought him three small fossils from the Ardennes: shells from the secondary era that he had picked up in a quarry. These “gryphées” (their scientific name) which make him dream, the child installs them in his library and shows them to all his friends. To the point of earning the nickname “Coco the Fossil”. At 14, a friend of his grandfather took him to an excavated Gallic site on the shores of the Gulf of Morbihan. There are lots of potsherds there. “And then I had a revelation. I knew in an instant that I would spend my life digging the ground looking for traces of the past,” he laughed.

The man had detailed in his Memoirs (Origins of man, origins of a man, published in 2018 by Odile Jacob) the importance of this magical experience which consists in bringing out of the ground objects testifying to very remote times. As a teenager, he cherished the hope of joining the learned society Polymathique hosted at Château-Gaillard, seat of the former parliament of Brittany in Vannes, which he loved to visit as a child. It was with the aim of elucidating the origin of the Carnac alignments that he said he enrolled in archeology at the Sorbonne. He had continued in this direction by specializing, in the third cycle, in paleontology.

Debuts in the cinema

As a young doctor, he joined the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in 1956 and initially focused on mammoth teeth. His thesis is on prehistoric elephants. He is 22 years old. Passionate about cinema, the student leads two career beginnings simultaneously since he finds himself, at the same time, an intern with Agnès Varda for a series of short films on the Riviera.

The director called on his services to help her understand what the windows of the Archaeological Museum of Monaco showed. Here he is lending a hand to the filmmaker as an assistant director. “The cinematographer, Quinto Albicocco, was complaining that the skeletons of prehistoric men didn't move in the display cases. I fixed it by putting sugars here and there and borrowing the little dog from the museum janitor. The animal, seeking to eat, pushed the skulls. The skeletons seemed animated…” he said. Not without adding that his career could have stopped dead because one of the bones almost broke. “Fortunately, the Prince of Monaco, to whom I told the episode, did not seem to hold it against me. »

Heading for Africa

The CNRS nevertheless asks him to choose between the seventh art and research. The young man runs. And it was thanks to a first mission to Africa, in 1960, that he finally looked into the origins of humanity. From then on, he never stopped searching the sub-Saharan area, where modern man originated.

Yves Coppens identifies as early as 1961 a first prehistoric skull in northern Chad. In 1967, he found a 2.6 million year old hominid mandible in Shungura, West Omo. It was the first fossil specimen of an unknown species: Paranthropus aethiopicus.

Lucy's discovery

But fame would come seven years later, when Tom Gray, a young American researcher, a member of her team , unearths the first of Lucy's 52 bones. This skeleton has long been the most complete hominid fossil ever found for such an early period (since then have been discovered in the same area the skeletons of Ardi, in the early 1990s, and Selam, in 2000, respectively more 4 and 3.4 million years ago).

His African friends nicknamed him “the gazelle” because he often sported a dark tan on his back and pale on his stomach. “When you spend your time hunched over on the floor and shirtless, it's inevitable,” he noted. For fifty years, “the gazelle”, therefore, crisscrossed the Ethiopian desert thanks to an annual campaign of excavations on the banks of the dry river Aouache, at the edge of which our distant ancestors were to come to drink.

Prehistoric Ambassador

Yves Coppens' fame was worldwide. Through conferences and seminars, the paleontologist had visited five continents. An outstanding pedagogue and born populariser, Yves Coppens benefited from a phenomenal memory and an uncommon oratorical talent that allowed him to express himself without notes. He has never stopped traveling the world to make his work known.

Eager to share his knowledge with as many people as possible, he was not reluctant to come and express himself on television. He thus participated in many prime time broadcasts, but also in dozens of documentary films on prehistory. The undisguised pleasure he felt in being thus publicized earned him sometimes harsh criticism from the milieu. He didn't care. Holder of the chair of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the College de France from 1983 to 2005, his classes were always crowded. At each of his interventions, the amphitheater of five hundred seats was packed.

Yves Coppens liked to put on a show like this. This taste for directing had even pushed him to perform on the stage of a theater at over 87 years old! He will thus have played a major role in the promotion of his own life. “Vulcanology got Haroun Tazieff, oceanography got Jacques-Yves Cousteau, paleontology got me,” he summed up, a bit playful.

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