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Lucy fossil coming to U.S.

The 3.2-million-year-old skeleton will be shown at a Houston museum despite fears it could be damaged.

August 20, 2004|Pam Easton | Associated Press

HOUSTON — The first-ever public display of Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old fossil discovered in Ethiopia, is scheduled for Houston in 2006, to the chagrin of some anthropologists who fear the project will harm the partial skeleton.

Ethiopia, where Lucy is stored in a museum safe, hopes to encourage tourism and investment in the East African country by offering the treasure to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

"Nobody is happy about exporting the original Lucy outside of Ethiopia," said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "People think the export might endanger Lucy."

The fossil makes up about 40% of a skeleton of a woman who died sometime between her 25th and 30th birthdays. She is the "most complete, best-preserved skeleton of any erect-walking human ancestor that has ever been found," according to "Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind," a book co-written by Donald Johanson, one of her discoverers.

Johanson and other anthropologists who unearthed the fossil at Hadar in 1974 named her after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" during a celebration over the find with music and beer. The skeleton, according to anthropologists, indicated that our ancestors were upright before the earliest stone tools -- and before the brains of such hominids got bigger.

The Houston museum would be responsible for organizing a possible four-year U.S. tour for Lucy once the final details of a memorandum of understanding are worked out and the agreement finalized with Ethiopia's Tourism Commission.

Other stops could include New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

"It is a dream for the entire museum," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at the Houston museum. "But for the department, the field of anthropology, it is like the Holy Grail coming over."

Negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the Houston museum continue over which items from hundreds of thousands of years of Ethiopian history will accompany Lucy. The museum would like to include some of the crowns, regalia and manuscripts written in a language that is no longer spoken.

By allowing Lucy to take the overseas trip, Ethiopian officials hope to offer an image of the country different from the stereotypical picture of famine and war, said Gezahgen Kebede, president of Houston's Ethio-American Trade and Investment Council.

Haile-Selassie, who moved from Ethiopia to the United States about a decade ago, said other museums have exhibited casts of the Lucy fossil and says the Houston museum could do the same.

"What is the difference if you display a good cast or an original?" he asked. "Why would you put it in a safe while it is in its country of origin and then take it out in another country?"

But Van Tuerenhout says people want to see the real skeleton, not a cast, and Lucy hasn't been displayed in Ethiopia because no safe way exists there to show her.

"Of course, we would love for the people in Ethiopia to see her first, but right now the government itself and the museum itself has felt that is not a possibility," Van Tuerenhout said.

The fossil would travel "first class" to Houston, he said. A special travel case would be constructed.

At the end of the U.S. tour, all the items associated with the exhibit -- any computer programs, display cases, background information and lighting -- will go to Ethiopia, so people there can finally see the fossil, Van Tuerenhout said.

If the Ethiopian government wants to share Lucy, no one can really stand in its way, said Bernard Wood, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology at George Washington University. But it's not a precedent Wood and other anthropologists like.

"Paleoanthropologists and the curators of well-supported museums in the United States really should find another way of getting funds to these African museums," Wood said. "Lucy is your ancestor and my ancestor and everyone else's ancestor. It is money talking and I don't think money ought to be allowed to talk."

Houston museum officials would not say if they were providing funding or other support to the Ethiopian government or museum in exchange for the exhibit. Museum spokeswoman Lydia Baehr said the cost incurred by the museum for the exhibit and to secure Lucy's safe passage would be included in the final contract, which she said will be confidential.

Haile-Selassie said when casts of the Lucy fossil are shown abroad "it is natural for the Ethiopian National Museum, as a museum in a third world, to expect financial and material support."

Texas Secretary of State Geoff Connor said the Lucy exhibit could bring with it an economic effect of $5 million to $7 million, which he called a conservative estimate.

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