Many scientists unhappy about Lucy tour

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Lucy, the famed fossilized skeleton of one of the oldest human ancestors, is coming to visit the US from Ethiopia where Donald Johanson and his colleagues discovered her in 1974. Surprisingly, Lucy won't be on display at two of the premier natural history museums in the country, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Why? Those are just two of the museums who refused the exhibition, arguing that the fragile bones should remain in Ethiopia and not subjected to six years of touring and public display. The exhibit, titled The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, is hosted and sponsored by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here's Houston Museum anthropology curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout's side of the story from the San Antonio Express News:
"Our mission at the museum is one of education and promoting dialogue," (Tuerenhout) said. "We are honored that our museum was chosen to premiere this exhibition. We share the concerns for Lucy's safety, which also extends to the artifacts in the exhibit. Before we agreed to accept the exhibition, a respected team of conservators specializing in hominid fossils was brought in to evaluate Lucy's condition; they pronounced her to be hearty, robust and fully capable of traveling without damage."

Lucy is not only part of Ethiopia's cultural heritage, Tuerenhout added; she is also part of world heritage. "She deserves to be on the world stage for all to see, and we applaud the Ethiopian government's decision to allow this to happen," he said. "She will serve as a unique goodwill ambassador for her country and bring greater understanding about our own past." Link
And the following is what paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, has to say on the matter:
“From the outset, the plan to bring ‘Lucy’ to the U.S. ignored an existing international resolution signed by scientific representatives from 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the U.S. The resolution calls for museums–in fact, all scientific institutions–to support the care of early human fossils in their country of origin, and to make displays in other countries using excellent fossil replicas.

It’s especially distressing to museum professionals I’ve talked with in Africa that ‘Lucy’ has been removed from Ethiopia for six years, and that a U. S. museum has been involved in doing so. The decision to remove ‘Lucy’ from Ethiopia also goes against the professional views of Ethiopian scientists in the National Museum of Ethiopia, the institution mandated to safeguard such irreplaceable discoveries." Link
The fossil above is not the real Lucy but rather the Smithsonian's cast of the original. Lucy normally resides in a climate-controlled safe at the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa. Mamitu Yilma, director of the museum, traveled with Lucy to Houston. From an Associated Press story earlier this month:
"People care about her. They tend to forget that she is 3 million years old. They forget she is a fossil," Yilma said. "Lucy is very precious. We don't have any replacement for her. Whenever any fossil is found, they are compared to Lucy..."

"It was like when someone you love is getting married, both happy and sad," said Yilma, describing her conflicting emotions when Lucy left Ethiopia. "The one thing that gives me comfort is that I'm here with her." Link
For the remarkable story of Lucy's discovery, read Donald Johanson's classic anthropology thriller Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Link


  1. Love the quote: “She deserves to be on the world stage for all to see…”

    She is already on display on the world stage – in Ethopia – which, surprisingly, is part of the world.

  2. “Love the quote: “She deserves to be on the world stage for all to see…”

    She is already on display on the world stage – in Ethopia – which, surprisingly, is part of the world.”

    While Ethiopia is indeed part of the world, visitors to the National Museum in Addis Ababa will see a replica on display. The real Lucy has been on display twice since she was discovered. Otherwise, she remains accessible only to scientists, not to the general public.

    The decision to allow Lucy to travel was made by the Ethiopian government. This decision mirrors those made by other governments in Africa and Europe to allow the public display of original hominid fossils.

    One final thought: were the same concerns expressed in 2003 when Spain sent original fossils to the US?

  3. Perhaps the scientists are afraid that Lucy will fall prey to the insidious and growing trend of illicit paleontological pornography:

  4. It seems slightly bizarre to me that something that’s managed to survive without our loving care for some 3 million years now needs to be kept in an air conditioned room where no one without a PhD can see it.

  5. Since her uncovered skeleton is actually a former skeleton which has been replaced by the stuff that fossilized it, isn’t the Smithsonian cast just as ‘real’ as the one that was dug up?

    (Note: I’m not a scientician)

  6. I think anything the Houston museum does should be viewed as suspect. The lobby boasts a large placard of donors who are nearly all oil companies. Their “energy” section preaches the gospel of oil. I’m not saying Lucy has anything to do with oil, just that the Houston museum often has their priorities screwed up.

  7. FYI, it’s Donald Johanson, not Johansen, who co-wrote “Lucy: the Beginnings of Humankind”. The other co-author was Maitland Edey.

  8. It is nearly impossible to tell, however, whether people enjoyed sex more 50 years ago or 50,000 years ago, said David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of “The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating” (Basic Books, 2003).

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  9. I remember hearing about this on NPR. Imagine my surprise when I got home, opened up this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, and saw a full-page ad for the tour.

    Apparently, they are against the tour, but not against taking the tour’s money…

  10. I was half-expecting the furor to be over displaying Lucy without all her clothes on– it IS the South, you know…

  11. Personally, I wish the scientists would be allowed to lock up the bones and send casts on display.

    Now, I was lucky enough to have Dr. Tim White (one of Lucy’s co-discoverers) as an anthropology prof, and we got to look at a really, really good copy of Lucy in lab. In fact, it was so good that I thought I was looking at the original (silly me). It was also under glass, much as shown above.

    The point is, unless you can handle the bones, it’s really difficult to tell a good copy from the original, especially if said fossil is under glass and you’re standing several feet away. In fact, if Ethiopia has any brains, they’ve sent out a copy, and the original fossil is still quietly locked up.

    So far as the public is concerned, it’s very difficult to determine the authenticity of a fossil display, unless you get to touch the bones. The only reason to send an original out is the cachet of originality, which is primarily intended to drive up ticket sales. Given the fragility of many fossils and their continued use to science, I’d be happier if they displayed copies, and kept the originals safe.

  12. I agree that a copy is all that is necessary for this tour. We all grew up admiring the copies of dinosaur fossils, so I don’t understand why the originality of the fossil is such a big marketing gimmick. Personally, I think there should be multiple copies made. Then anyone in any city could learn from Lucy and others like her. As it is, I now have to check the tour schedule to see if it’s coming to Phoenix. What is this? A Van Halen reunion tour? Geez.

  13. The most telling part of the story is:

    “She will serve as a unique goodwill ambassador for her country and bring greater [bla bla]”

    Yes a great and unique goodwill ambassador, millions of years dead, unspeaking and unseeing.

    I believe The West has reached a new level of sincerity concerning African diplomacy.

  14. Why are these fossils going to a part of the world where so many people believe human kind is less than 20,000 years old? Perhaps Lucy’s 3 million year legacy will be help parts of the US South to evolve.

  15. It seems slightly bizarre to me that something that’s managed to survive without our loving care for some 3 million years now needs to be kept in an air conditioned room where no one without a PhD can see it.

    As a matter of fact, only 40% of Lucy’s skeleton managed to survive, even when it was buried and protected from exposure to the elements, and the fact that a fossil that’s less than half complete is such a rare and precious specimen should give you an idea of how fragile these things are.


    I went and talked to the protesters briefly on the first day of the exhibit. They were most emphatic about the cost paid by the Houston Museum of Nat. Science to get Lucy out of Ethiopia and that it went to the “corrupt rulers” of the country (my paraphrasing).

    “So, it’s like ‘Conflict Diamonds’, going to see the exhibit?”

    And the one guy I was talked to agreed emphatically.

    So, part of this is political.

  17. Having the spark of archeology ignited for me in the early 80’s via “LUCY: The Beginnings of Humankind” (and to a lesser degree Indiana Jones, yes, lesser) I couldn’t be happier Lucy is traveling for folks like me, who have been transfixed on those old bones for decades, to see. We all understand there are politics involved, but Lucy transcends politics and to a certain degree science and should be viewed as a work of Art. Art travels for all to see, or so it should imho. Is there a danger? Certainly. Art as this should be seen by all those willing, regardless of the politics.

  18. As an anthropologist, I was both delighted to hear that Lucy would be touring the US as well as sceptical. I had suspicion that a cast would be touring and the original bones would remain safely in their vault. Knowing that the Smithsonian has refused the exhibit suggests that these are the real bones.

    Those who claim political reasons for protesting are missing the point. The bones are an irreplaceable part of the fossil record. The museums are rejecting the exhibit to protect this piece of history. Other Australopithecus bones have been found, more complete skeletons have been found since lucy. she is simply the first most complete. It is her fame that is drawing so many people. The fact that other Australopithecus fossils have been found does not mean that lucy is less irreplaceable, we have so few fossils of the human record that each is irreplaceable.

    It is most likely that she is being brought to the US for political reasons, including to provide proof of evolution. However, the rejection of the exhibit is to protect the scientific record.

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