"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.

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