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In Ethiopia, both Obama and ancient fossils get a motorcade

Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences, second from right, directs President Obama to touch a fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human, before a state dinner in Obama's honor at Ethiopia's National Palace in Addis Ababa on Monday. Lucy, the most famous fossil of the species <em>Australopithecus afarensis</em> , was found in Ethiopia in 1974. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Sometimes, the world is surreal enough that skeleton bones have their own motorcade and one of them ends up being touched by a president.

That’s what happened Monday during President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, when he attended a state dinner at the National Palace. Yonas Desta Tsegaye, director general of the National Museum of Ethiopia, came up with the idea of also taking the bones of “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year-old hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Lucy, the common name of AL-288-1, represented a groundbreaking discovery in 1974 when the American anthropologist Donald Johanson unearthed the skeleton in Ethiopia's Afar region. For a couple of decades, the Lucy ranked as humans' earliest known ancestor.

Ethiopia, described by its prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, on Monday as the “cradle of mankind,” is understandably proud of its fossils. In addition to Lucy, numerous other links to human evolution have been found here, and two others were on display Monday night for Obama: Selam, a 3.3 million-year-old hominid Australopithecus afarensis that ranks as the world’s oldest child, and Ardi, the nearly 4.5 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus.

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“That’s amazing,” Obama remarked when he saw Lucy’s bones, which lay in an uncovered, padded wooden box. “So Lucy was on the chain to Homo sapiens.”

Obama asked Zeresenay Alemseged, who was helping give him the tour and serves as senior curator of anthropology of the California Academy at Sciences , “how many jumps” there were between Lucy and Homo sapiens.

Alemseged told him there were three jumps in between and urged him to touch a vertebra from Lucy’s torso.

“It shows that every single person here, 7 billion people, including Donald Trump, came down through the chain,” said Alemseged, who discovered the bones of Selam and published a paper on it in 2006.

Later, the scientists couldn’t recall a time the bones of Lucy had been displayed uncovered; the last time they were displayed outside the museum was two years ago during the 50th celebration of the African Union, when 63 leaders were in Addis Ababa.

“Extraordinary people have extraordinary access,” Alemseged said.

Berhane Asfaw, who discovered Ardi and was also at the palace, explained that Ethiopian authorities took extraordinary measures to transfer the fossils from their resting place at the museum to the palace. They were transported in a group of “multiple cars so people don’t know which one the fossils are in,” Berhane said, “as you are protecting your president.”

So in that way, the president and the ancient fossils had plenty in common.

“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain,” Obama said less than half-an-hour later at the state dinner. “And as one of the professors who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact.  We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.”