Famous Fossil Lucy Leaves Ethiopia

The Associated Press
Monday, August 6, 2007; 10:55 PM

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- After 3.2 million years in East Africa, one of the world's most famous set of fossils was quietly flown out of Ethiopia overnight for a U.S. tour that some experts say is a dangerous gamble with an irreplaceable relic.

Although the fossil known as Lucy had been expected to leave the Ethiopian Natural History Museum this month, some in the nation's capital were surprised the departure took place under cover of darkness with no fanfare Sunday.

"This is a national treasure," said Kine Arega, a 29-year-old attorney in Addis Ababa. "How come the public has no inkling about this? It's amazing that we didn't even get to say goodbye."

Paleontologist Berhane Assaw said he arrived at the museum Monday morning after working late Sunday night to find that the fossil and key staff members had left for Texas, where Lucy will go on display this month. The departure "should have been made public," he said.

The Smithsonian Institution has objected to the six-year tour because museum experts do not believe the fragile remains should travel. Even in Ethiopia, the public has seen the real Lucy fossil only twice. The Lucy exhibition at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum is a replica, and the real remains are usually locked in a vault to protect them.

"Quite simply, the Smithsonian position is that the fossil Lucy, one of the most important specimens of its kind, is too fragile to go on public tour," National Natural History Museum spokesman Randall Kremer said Monday.

The curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where Lucy will be on display from Aug. 31 to April 20, said he shared the Smithsonian's concern over ensuring the security of artifacts on display. But he said this should not preclude them from traveling.

"We will put Lucy on display with the utmost care just as we have put other fragile artifacts on display, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were returned to Israel in the same condition they came to our museum," Dirk Van Tuerenhout said.

The museum exhibited the Dead Sea Scrolls for three months in late 2004 and early 2005.

The fossilized partial skeleton of what was once a 3 1/2-foot-tall adult of an ape-man species was discovered in 1974 by U.S. paleontologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between about 3-4 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.

Most scientists believe Australopithecus afarensis stood upright and walked on two feet, but they argue about whether it had ape-like agility in trees. The loss of that ability would suggest crossing a threshold toward a more human existence.

Lucy's name was taken from a Beatles song that played in an archaeological camp the night of her discovery.

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