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"Lucy" Fossil Tour Sparks Controversy Among U.S. Museums

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 1, 2006
 
What could be the most famous human ancestor ever discovered is coming to the United States, but not everyone is rolling out the welcome mat.

Ethiopia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas last week announced an agreement to include "Lucy"—the skeleton of a nearly 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis—in a touring exhibition of several hundred Ethiopian relics.

Beginning next year, the U.S. tour starring the well-known ancient primate is set to run for six years and visit 11 cities.

But some scientists have criticized the plan, saying Lucy is too fragile to travel.

Experts worry that the fossilized bones, which were the first A. afarensis remains ever found, may be damaged or even lost during the voyage (get Lucy fast facts).

Among the museums indicating it will not showcase Lucy is the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Joel Bartsch, president of the Houston museum, defends his institution's plans to bring Lucy out of Africa.

"On a regular basis museums travel fragile, irreplaceable, and priceless objects and put them on public display for the purposes of educating and enlightening visitors," he said.

"Such programs are at the very core of what museums are all about."

Kept in a Vault

Lucy was discovered in 1974 in the desertlike Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia. Her species, A. afarensis, lived in Africa between three million and four million years ago.

The researchers who discovered Lucy found several hundred bone fragments representing 40 percent of a female skeleton.

Lucy's bones have never been exhibited abroad. They are kept in a vault at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum in the capital city of Adis Abeba (Addis Ababa).

"Due to her completeness as a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton, Lucy is a truly exceptional, irreplaceable discovery," said Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program.

"Any risk of damage or removal from scientific study, especially when exact replicas of the fossils are indistinguishable for display purposes, seems unnecessary and, in this particular case, not well conceived."

Potts says such fossils should be removed from their vaults only for the most compelling scientific reasons.

"The Lucy fossil is quite fragile, and there is always the possibility of damage if it were to be moved," he said.

But Bartsch, the Houston museum president, says international museums routinely transport such objects for public display.

His museum has exhibited without incident Fabergé eggs from Russia's treasury and the original Dead Sea scrolls from Israel.

The museum is currently showcasing the original U.S. Declaration of Independence, on loan from the American Philosophical Society based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"[We are] fully aware of the enormous responsibility that comes with developing and managing this exhibition in partnership with the Ethiopian government," Bartsch said.

"We will take every precaution to ensure that no object will be lost or damaged."

Scientific Interest

Ian Tattersall, curator of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, says the tour may not be in the best interest of science.

"While I can see a very positive side to a single showing of Lucy in Houston, I think a protracted tour would be very undesirable," Tattersall said, emphasizing that this is his opinion and not an official position of the museum.

"It would unacceptably increase the risk to the specimen, and even in the best of scenarios would take it out of the scientific arena for an extended period," he said.

"It is active science that gives Lucy her true value."

Potts, of the Smithsonian, argues that the Lucy tour is designed to benefit the Ethiopian government, which negotiated the deal, and not the National Museum of Ethiopia, which is responsible for the care of the invaluable fossil.

However, John Kappelman, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, says bringing Lucy to the United States is an opportunity to do scientific investigations of the specimen that can otherwise not be done.

His university has proposed using a high-resolution x-ray CT (computed tomography) facility on its campus to scan and image Lucy's bones.

At 3 feet, 6 inches (just over a meter) tall and weighing about 62 pounds (28 kilograms), Lucy almost certainly stood upright and walked on two feet.

But scientists differ on how she moved and whether she would have retained apelike climbing abilities.

"Some of the things that have never been studied on Lucy are her trabecular bone [a spongy type of bone found at the ends of long bones], which informs us about her mode of locomotion—how she used her arms, how she used her legs," he said.

"We can do that [with this CT scan] on a very fine level." (Related news: "King Tut Not Murdered Violently, CT Scans Show" [March 8, 2005].)

Kappelman also takes issue with scientists who have accused organizers of using the fossils as a tourist attraction.

"There are lots of informed people out there who would love to see this specimen," he said. "The term 'tourist' is a very unfair way of categorizing them."

He says Lucy has the potential to educate people about human evolution like no other single specimen in the world could.

"I think it's going to get people excited about the science in a way that the King Tut exhibit in the United States 30 years ago got people excited about Egypt," Kappelman said.

Although no details about the tour have been finalized, Bartsch, the Houston museum president, says finding other museums to host Lucy will not be a problem.

"In the last few days," he said, "we have had inquiries from more than a dozen prominent, well-respected institutions, each of whom expressed very strong interest in hosting the exhibition."

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