By Khaled Kazziha
Saturday, August 11, 2007
NAIROBI, Aug. 10 -- One of the world's leading paleontologists on Friday denounced Ethiopia's decision to send the Lucy skeleton on a six-year tour of the United States, warning that the 3.2 million-year-old fossil will probably be damaged no matter how careful its handlers are. The skeleton was quietly flown out of Ethiopia this week for the U.S. tour.
Paleontologist Richard Leakey joined other experts in criticizing what they see as a gamble with the renowned fossil. The Smithsonian Institution has also objected to the tour, and the secretive manner in which the remains were sent abroad has caused controversy in Ethiopia, where Lucy has been displayed to the public only twice.
"It's a form of prostitution, it's gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity, and it should not be permitted," Leakey said in an interview at his office in Nairobi.
Ethiopian officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but they have said proceeds from the tour will be used to upgrade museums in one of the world's poorest countries.
Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where Lucy will be on display from Aug. 31 to April 20, said his museum would treat the relic with "the greatest respect and sense of protection -- something we in the museum world do all the time."
"I would say we definitely share the concern that people have to safeguard fossils like Lucy, or for that matter any other fossils," Van Tuerenhout said. "Where we part company, in a sense, is the decision that was made to allow her to travel."
He emphasized that the decision to allow the fossil to go abroad was made by the Ethiopian government.
Lucy, the fossilized partial skeleton of a 3 1/2 -foot-tall adult of an ape-man species, was discovered in 1974 in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa about 3 million to 4 million years ago and is the earliest known hominid species.
The State Department approved the exhibit for temporary importation into the United States, saying that displaying Lucy and other artifacts is in the national interest because of their "cultural significance."
Stops beyond Houston have yet to be finalized, but Ethiopian officials have said they include New York, Denver and Chicago.
Leakey said the skeleton will almost certainly come to physical harm. "These specimens will get damaged no matter how careful you are, and every time she is moved there is a risk," he said. "A specimen that is that precious and unique shouldn't be exposed to the threats of damage by travel."
He also said keeping Lucy in Ethiopia would lure tourists to the country.
A team led by Leakey unearthed the bones of Turkana Boy -- the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric hominid ever found -- in the desolate far northern reaches of Kenya in 1984.