In the 1970s, mid-Pliocene hominin fossils were found at the sites of Hadar in Ethiopia and Laetoli in Tanzania. These samples constituted the first substantial evidence for hominins older than 3.0 Ma and were notable for some remarkable discoveries, such as the “Lucy” partial skeleton and the abundant remains from the A.L. 333 locality at Hadar and the hominin footprint trail at Laetoli. The Hadar and Laetoli fossils were ultimately assigned to the novel hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, which at the time was the most plesiomorphic and geologically ancient hominin taxon. The discovery and naming of A. afarensis coincided with important developments in theory and methodology in paleoanthropology; in addition, important fossil and genetic discoveries were changing expectations about hominin divergence dates from extant African apes. This coincidence of events ensured that A. afarensis figured prominently in the last 30 years of paleoanthropological research. Here, the 30+ year history of discovery, analysis, and interpretation of A. afarensis and its contexts are summarized and synthesized. Research on A. afarensis continues and subject areas in which further investigation is needed to resolve ongoing debates regarding the paleobiology of this species are highlighted. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 52:2–48, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.