Smithsonian Refuses To Exhibit Ethiopia's Fragile 'Lucy' Fossil

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006

Plans for a six-year U.S. tour by "Lucy," one of humanity's earliest known ancestors, have hit a major snag.

Earlier this week the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia and the Houston Museum of Natural Science announced an agreement to include Lucy in a tour of several hundred Ethiopian relics. But at least two major U.S. museums now say the bones should not be moved and they don't want to show them.

Rick Potts, the director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program and an influential paleoanthropologist, said he and many other scientists agree that Lucy is too fragile to travel. He said the Ethiopian artifacts would not come to the Smithsonian.

The International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology, a group affiliated with UNESCO, passed a resolution in 1998 saying such fossils shouldn't be moved outside the country of origin. The resolution, unanimously approved by representatives of 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the United States, said replicas should be used for public display.

Potts, who has led major excavations in East Africa for more than 25 years, said fossils should be moved from their vaults "only under the most compelling scientific reasons." (He keeps a cast of Lucy in his laboratory at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.)

A spokesman for the American Museum of Natural History in New York also said that museum would not accept the 3.2-million-year-old fossilized remains.

Neil Shubin, provost of the Field Museum in Chicago, said the museum's officials hadn't discussed the possibility of exhibiting Lucy on the planned tour. "This is a hot potato because there are a lot of issues institutions have to confront. These are rare fossils, very fragile, and they can be damaged or lost," he said. Shubin said the scientific group's aversion to Lucy being moved "would be front and center" in the museum's discussions.

Potts said he also objected to the use of the fossil as a tourist attraction. "The value of these things to the scientific community comes first," said Potts.

Joel Bartsch, president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, said there are no plans to cancel the tour. The museum is paying most of the costs and expects other museums will want to display the artifacts. The agreement calls for 11 venues, including Houston.

"I am quite confident all the slots will be filled," Bartsch said. "I respect the opinions of the scientists, but museums travel irreplaceable, rare objects every day."

He said his museum has shown the Dead Sea Scrolls, treasures from the Vatican and other fragile objects with no problems.

Details of the tour, which will start in Houston next September, are not final.

About 40 percent of a female skeleton was discovered near Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974 by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray. Lucy stood roughly 3 feet 6 inches tall and weighed about 62 pounds. The bones are kept in a vault in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The fossil's name comes from the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which was playing during the party celebrating the discovery.

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