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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Lucy's Knee Joint

A Case Study in Creationists' Willingness to Admit their Errors

Copyright © 1995-2003
[Last Update: June 12, 2003]

An earlier version of this FAQ was published as "Lucy's Knee Joint: How creationists deal with their errors," in The Skeptic (magazine of the Australian Skeptics) vol. 15, no. 4, Summer 1995, pp. 34-36, with additional comments by Colin P. Groves. (Australian Skeptics, Inc., P.O. Box A2324, Sydney South NSW 2000 Australia)

Other Links:
A Failed Attempt to Dialog with Creation Scientists
The knee joint claim is not the only false creationist claim. This site is a look at an attempt to get young-earth creationist web sites to correct the false claim that the Earth's rotation is slowing down too fast for it to be old.

Creationists have been making the claim that Donald Johanson found the knee joint of "Lucy," a 40%-complete skeleton of the species Australopithecus afarensis, in a location "Sixty to seventy meters lower in the strata and two to three kilometers away" (Willis 1987). They have sometimes gone on to add the claim that "Only under questioning did [Johanson] admit that the knee was found over a mile from Lucy. To the best of our knowledge this admission has not appeared in print!" (Willis 1987; emphasis in original; Also see Brown 1989a, p. 44) The claim is used by creationists to show that (a) evolutionists are dishonest and (b) "Lucy" did not walk upright. It successfully shows neither of these things, because it is false. (Even if it were true, it would not demonstrate (b), for reasons given in Lippard (1989-90)--the knee joint is not the only evidence of bipedality in A. afarensis.)

The claim is not only false, it is clearly shown to be false in Johanson's published writings about "Lucy" (e.g., Johanson and Edey 1981, ch. 7-8) and it has been pointed out repeatedly to its proponents that it is false. Despite this, none of the major proponents of the claim has publicly retracted it. One major proponent has privately agreed that it is false, and a few creationists have agreed to stop repeating it. One minor proponent made a public retraction.

The claim originated with Tom Willis, head of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, in an article he wrote for the Bible-Science Newsletter (1987). In his article, Willis reported on a lecture by Johanson at the University of Missouri on November 20, 1986. Willis reported that the following exchange occurred during the question-and-answer session which followed Johanson's lecture:

Q. How far away from Lucy did you find the knee?
A. Sixty to seventy meters lower in the strata and two to three kilometers away.

This question was perhaps intended by the questioner to mean "How far away from Lucy did you find Lucy's knee?", but was clearly interpreted by Johanson to mean "How far away from Lucy did you find the 1973 knee joint?" Willis does not recognize the confusion in his article, even though the discoveries of both the original knee joint (1973) and Lucy (1974) are described in detail--including the locations of the finds--in Donald C. Johanson and Maitland E. Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (1981) and in the articles in the April 1982 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The creationist misunderstanding would never have occurred had either of these sources been consulted. Johanson's writings have always been clear about the fact that his 1973 knee joint was a separate find from Lucy. All of the bones shown in photographs of Lucy were found at a single location.

The problem has been compounded by the Institute for Creation Research's use of the name "Lucy" to refer to both the species Australopithecus afarensis and the individual "Lucy," as ICR Museum director John Rajca did on the June 18, 1994 segment of the ICR's "Science, Scripture and Salvation" radio program. Rajca said:

"In the fall of 1973, near Hadar, Dr. Johanson found the fossil of what is now called Lucy. The reason it is called Lucy is that the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was playing in the camp when the fossil was discovered. The first specimen of Lucy to be uncovered was a knee joint. At first this was judged to be a monkey; it was later labelled by Johanson as a hominid. Lucy is a 40% complete female skeleton...."
The same use of "Lucy" to refer to the species A. afarensis occurs in a diagram in the November 1985 National Geographic (Weaver 1985, p. 593). Willis (n.d.) has referred to the misleading photo captions in this article as "the stuff of the all-time greatest evolution fraud," allegedly perpetrated by Donald Johanson with the National Geographic staff as dupes or accomplices. (The knee actually pictured is neither from "Lucy" nor is it the 1973 knee; rather it is an A. afarensis knee from AL 333w-56, the "First Family" site.)

The claim that Lucy's knee joint was found separate from the rest of the skeleton has been made or reported by Russell Arndts (1991), Carl Baugh (1995), Walter Brown (1989a), Donald Chittick (1994), Michael Girouard (1989), Kent Hovind (1993a), Scott Huse (1993), Richard LaHaye (1997), David McAllister (1993a), Bill Mehlert (1992), David Menton (1988), John Morris (1989), Dave and Mary Jo Nutting (1991, 1993, 1994), Dennis Petersen (2002, 2003), Douglas Sharp (1994), Paul Taylor (1989), and Tom Willis (1987).

The following is a brief summary of attempts to get retractions:

To summarize: At least eighteen creationists have made this bogus claim. Three have never responded in any way to questions about it (Girouard, Menton, Willis). Another two have not responded to further inquiries (Brown, McAllister). Only five have shown a willingness to discuss the matter (Chittick, the Nuttings, Sharp, Taylor), but one (Chittick) cut off correspondence. Four have agreed that the claim was in error and agreed to stop making it (Hovind, McAllister, Sharp, Taylor), and two agreed to stop making it if further investigation showed that the claim was bogus (the Nuttings) but have continued to repeat it. One (Arndts) has indicated a willingness to believe that the claim is in error but no interest in researching further or offering a correction because the article in which he made the claim just used it as an example of a type of error in reasoning. One (LaHaye) has insisted that the claim is not in error, but agreed to stop making it at the request of the Institute for Creation Research. Three (Baugh, Huse, Mehlert) have not yet been contacted for comment. One (Brown) now denies having made the claim at all. Only three (Menton, Morris, Sharp) have issued public corrections or clarifications.


Thanks to Jim Foley for the information about the fourth edition of Taylor's book, about David Nutting, about Hovind's continued use of the claim in his lectures and following up on it with letters, about Carl Baugh, about Douglas Sharp, and about Dennis Petersen. Jim also initiated communication with Russell Arndts via Internet. Thanks to KG Anderson for information about Rajca and the ICR radio program. Thanks to Stephen Watson for the initial information about Donald Chittick. Thanks to Drew Talley for supplying Menton's article from the ICR BBS. Thanks to Darren Provine for the Bill Mehlert reference. Thanks to David Buckna for the update on David Menton's article. Thanks to Pierre Stromberg for attempting to communicate with Donald Chittick, Richard LaHaye, and John Morris and for the information about various ICR lectures. Thanks to a colleague from a mid-western school who wishes to remain anonymous for the 2003 update on the Nuttings.


Answers in Genesis (2003) "Unleashing the Storm," a critique of Dennis Petersen's Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation.

Arndts, Russell (1991) "MinnLogic: The Size of the Burial Site and the Number of Individuals Buried," Bible-Science Newsletter vol. 29, no. 4, April, p. 8.

Baugh, Carl (1995) Guest on Bo Gritz's "Freedom Calls" radio show, November 1.

Brown, Walter T. (1989a) "Brown Responds to Lippard," Creation/Evolution vol. 9, no. 1, issue 25, Fall, pp. 35-48.

--- (1989b) "Dr. Brown Responds," Origins Research vol. 12, no. 2, Fall/Winter, p. 12.

--- (1989-90) "A Second Response to Jim Lippard," Creation/Evolution vol. 9, no. 2, issue 26, Winter, pp. 34-54.

Chittick, Donald (1994) Public lecture at Bethel Pentecostal Church, Nepean, Ontario, Canada, May 16.

Girouard, Michael (1989) "Ape Men--Monkey Business Falsely Called Science," Presentation at the Institute for Creation Research "Back to Genesis" Conference in Tucson, Arizona, December 1.

Hovind, Kent (1993a) Videotape of lecture in South Carolina (unknown date).

--- (1993b) Personal communication (audiotape) to Jim Lippard, November 5.

Huse, Scott M. (1983, 1993) The Collapse of Evolution (2nd Edition), Fourth Printing 1996, Baker Books, 208 pages (paper back). ISBN: 0-8010-4384-0

Johanson, Donald C. (1989) Personal communication (letter) to Jim Lippard, August 8.

--- (1990) Personal communication (letter) to Jim Lippard, May 30.

Johanson, Donald C. and Edey, Maitland A. (1981) Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.

LaHaye, Richard (1997) Presentation at a Institute for Creation Research public lecture in Redmond, Washington, May 28.

Lippard, Jim (1989-90) "A Further Examination of the Research of Walter Brown," Creation/Evolution vol. 9, no. 2, issue 26, Winter, pp. 17-33.

--- (1989) "Johanson Coverup?" Origins Research vol. 12, no. 2, Fall/Winter, p. 12.

--- (1990) "A Final Response to Walter Brown," Creation/Evolution vol. 10, no. 1, issue 27, Summer, pp. 28-36.

Martin, Mike (1997) "Aliens, hominids, U.N. bureaucrats, gurus, and the Temple Mount," Colorado Christian News, October, p. 7.

McAllister, David (1993a) Creation or Evolution: The Real Story. Seminar workbook, Christian Life And Service Seminars (C.L.A.S.S.), Tucson Community Church. Seminar on November 7.

--- (1993b) Personal communication (letter) to Jim Lippard, November 23.

Mehlert, Albert (1987) "A Study of Comments by Evolutionist Authorities on the Alleged Hominids Found in the Hadar/Afar Region of Africa," Contrast: The Creation Evolution Controversy (included in the Bible-Science Newsletter) vol. 6, no. 1, January-February, pp. 1-2,4.

Mehlert, Bill (1992) "A Review of the Present Status of Some Alleged Early Hominids," Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal vol. 6, no. 1, p. 19.

Menton, David N. (1988) "The Scientific Evidence for the Origin of Man," Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.

Morris, John D. (1989) "Was 'Lucy' an Ape-man?" Back to Genesis. In Acts & Facts, November, p. d. On the web at

--- (1993) Personal communication (telephone interview) with Jim Lippard, November 2.

--- (1995) "What Distinguishes Man from Ape?" Back to Genesis. In Acts & Facts, November, p. d.

Nutting, Dave and Mary Jo (1991) "Lucy and Friends," Think and Believe vol. 8, no. 1, January/February, p. 3.

--- (1994) "Was Your Great-Great Grandpa An Ape?" Think and Believe vol. 11, no. 3, May/June, p. 3.

Nutting, Dave (1993) Personal communication to Jim Foley after public lecture in Ft. Collins, Colorado, November 14.

Petersen, Dennis (2002) Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation.

Petersen, Dennis (2003) "Leashing the Storm," a response to Answers in Genesis's (2003) "Unleashing the Storm" (cited above), itself a critique of Petersen's (2002) Unlocking the Mysteries of Creation. This document is available in PDF form from

Sharp, Douglas B. (1994) The Revolution Against Evolution. On the World Wide Web at

Taylor, Paul S. (1989) The Illustrated Origins Answer Book. Mesa, Ariz.: Films for Christ Association, Inc. First printing.

Weaver, Kenneth F. (1985) "The Search for Our Ancestors," National Geographic vol. 168, no. 5 (November), pp. 560-623.

Willis, Tom (1987) "'Lucy' Goes to College," Bible-Science Newsletter October, pp. 1-3.

--- (n.d.) "Lucy Remains at College," CSA News revised article reprint of Willis (1987).

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