yves coppens


July 5, 2022

Yves Coppens (August 9, 1934 in Vannes – June 22, 2022) was a French paleontologist and paleoanthropologist. He was a professor at the Collège de France, a member of the Académie des sciences and was considered the most important French researcher in the field of human phylogenetic history and mammals in general. Together with Donald Johanson and Tim White, he published the first description of Australopithecus afarensis in 1978 and was therefore equally involved in research into the skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, which became famous under the name "Lucy".


After schooling in Rennes and studying natural sciences and archeology at the Sorbonne in Paris, Yves Coppens (pronounced: Koppénns) went to the Paris Center national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in 1956 and worked at the Institute for Paleontology at the Sorbonne, from 1969 as vice-director at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and at the Musée de l'Homme. For years he spent more than half of the year on research stays in Africa and Asia, whereby several dozen tons of animal fossils were collected under his leadership from 1960; from 1969 he was also the leader of the French team of the Omo Research Expedition in Ethiopia, succeeding Camille Arambourg. The recovered fossils included u. a. around a thousand fossil remains of early prehumans and other ancestors of modern humans, including Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Orrorin tugenensis and three other new species. His countless animal finds, especially from the period 4 to 2 million years ago, contributed i.a. to a complete description of the evolution of the pigs (Suina) and the horses (Equidae) as well as the hippos. From the change in form of these groups, conclusions could later be drawn about ecological changes in Africa, which also played a decisive role in the incarnation. Coppens became known outside of specialist circles after the publication of the first description of "Lucy" and the new hominid species Australopithecus afarensis ultimately derived from this find. In his book The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins wrote that while Coppens is credited with discovering "Lucy" in his native country, in the US this is credited to Donald Johanson (who found the skeleton with then post-doctoral fellow Tom Gray on November 24, 1974 ). In 1979 Yves Coppens was appointed director of the Musée de l'Homme, in 1980 professor of anthropology at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and in 1983 professor of paleoanthropology at the Collège de France. He published his research reports mostly in French, which is why he was less well known in the English-speaking area and in Germany than paleoanthropologists who published in English.

Research Topics

In addition to intensive field research, Coppens was also active as an evolutionary theorist. In 1983, under the motto East Side Story, he was the first researcher to propose an ecological hypothesis as to what circumstances might have led to the separation of hominins from the ancestors of chimpanzees eight million years ago. The name East Side Story alludes to the fact that the Rift Valley was formed at that time, separating a previously uniform population. This - according to the hypothesis - could have resulted in the great apes emerging on the west side of the rift valley and the pre-humans on the east side. Recent fossil finds e.g. in Chad have since put this hypothesis into perspective, but it has paved the way for intensive studies of the connection between climate change and speciation. In 1999, an attempt was made to explain the development of australopithecines and the origin of the genus Homo in the Omo region of Ethiopia. on