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Farewell to Yves Coppens, father of prehistory with the discovery of Lucy

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The French paleontologist Yves Coppens, whose international fame is linked to the discovery in 1974 in Ethiopia of the skeleton of Lucy, a hominid dated to about 3.2 million years ago, the most famous Australopithecus Afarensis, died on Wednesday 22 June at the age 87 years old in Paris after a long illness. Considered ‘the father of prehistory’, which he revolutionized thanks to dozens of paleoanthropological discoveries over the course of more than half a century, Coppens was professor emeritus of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the College de France, honorary director of the Museum of Man in Paris, member of institutions scientific studies around the world, including the Royal Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Academia Europaea, the Royal Academy of Belgium, the National Academy of Sciences in Rome and the Royal Anthropological Institute. Among the numerous awards there is also the Nonino Prize ‘To a Master of Our Time’ (2007). The announcement of his death was given by his editor Odile Jacob: “Yves Coppens was a great scientist, a world-renowned paleontologist, member of countless foreign institutions, but above all a professor at the Collège de France and a member of the Académie des Sciences “, wrote the publisher on Twitter. “His benevolence, his kindness, his humor, his loyalty and his erudition were matched only by his talent as a writer, storyteller and essayist,” added Jacob. Born in Vannes on 9 August 1934, Coppens began the first excavations and research in Brittany during his secondary studies and then at the Sorbonne University of Rennes in Paris, where he studied geology, zoology and botany and paleontology. In 1956 he entered the French National Scientific Research Center and dealt with remote periods and distant countries, in particular the limits of the Tertiary and Quaternary in the tropical regions of the Ancient World. Starting from 1960 he organized important expeditions first alone in Chad, then in international collaboration, in Ethiopia (Omo valley and Afar basin) as well as numerous missions in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, South Africa, Indonesia, Philippines, China and Siberia. His research has focused on the paleontology of vertebrates (proboscideans, hippos), their conformation and their relevance for paleoenvironments, climates and biochronology, as well as paleoanthropology.The fruit of those expeditions is remarkable: tens of tons of fossils among the such as more than a thousand remains of hominids that will be studied with surprising results, shedding light on the history of the last ten million years. He is known for his hypotheses which highlight the correlations existing between the evolution of hominids and the evolution of the environment. In 1969 Coppens was called to the deputy director of the Museum of Man, of which he became director in 1980, at the same time as he was entrusted with the chair of anthropology at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Meanwhile, he traveled to Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley, an important site for the discovery of ancient hominids. At the request of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, the British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey organized an international expedition in which Yves Coppens participated, discovering the remains of Australopithecus Aethiopicus (2.5 million years ago). The French scientist then headed to Afar, in eastern Ethiopia: in 1974 the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis), together with Maurice Taïeb and Don Johannson (USA). Lucy’s 52 bones (a human skeleton has 206) made it possible to reconstruct her weight, age and locomotion and to discover that prehumans walked and climbed trees. The name Lucy derives from the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the notes of which rang in the Ethiopian expeditionary camp. Over the years Coppens has formulated hypotheses that propose an environmental explanation for the separation of Hominidae Panidae 8 million years ago ( 1983), another hypothesis which identified the first appearance of the Australopithecines 4 million years ago (1999), yet another on the appearance of the genus Homo 3 million years ago (1975). These three stages hypothesized by Coppens are concatenated vertically or transversely within real trees, and each creates the conditions for the next stage, while developing its own stock in an original and autonomous way. of technology, Yves Coppens has also shown how the acquired has gradually prevailed over the innate, giving man freedom and responsibility, and why for 100,000 years the evolution of Man has slowed down and then stopped (1982 , 1988). Coppens is the author of over a thousand articles and numerous books. Coppens Jaca Book has published in Italian: “The monkey, Africa and man” (1985); “The great stages of prehistory and paleoanthropology. Inaugural lectures at the Collège de France” (1988); “Hominoids, hominids and men” (1988); “Pre-amboli. The first steps of man” (1990); “History of Man and Climate Change” (2005). Among the numerous awards awarded by Coppens, the Edmond Hébert Prize (1963), the André C. Bonnet Prize (1969) and the Jaffé Grand Prize (1974) of the Acadèmie des Sciences, the gold medal of the Emperor of Ethiopia ( 1973), the scientific grand prize of the Fondation de France (1975), the Fourmarier medal of the Geological Society of Belgium (1975), the Glaxo prize (1978), the silver medal of the CNRS (1982), the Kalinga prize of the Unesco (1984), the Vandenbroeck medal of the Belgian Society of geology, paleontology and hydrology (1987), the André Duveyrier medal of the Society of Geography (1989), the gold medal for encouraging progress (1991), the great scientific prize of the Académie international de Lutèce (1994), the Carl Gustaf Bernhard medal of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden (1997), the Great Gold Medal for Sciences of the Academic Society of Arts-Sciences-Letters of Paris (2002) ), the Fabio Frassetto prize of the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome for l ‘Physical Anthropology (2005). Coppens chaired the commission for the preparation and drafting of the Environmental Charter (2002-2003) adopted by the French Constitution on February 28, 2005. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the universities of Chicago, Bologna, Liège, Mons and honorary citizenships for 29 French and Moroccan cities. His name has been given to an asteroid and to institutions, universities, colleges, schools, libraries, laboratories, streets, as well as a professorship at the University of Recife (Brazil). (By Paolo Martini)

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