September 4, 2007
“Lucy,” the renowned fossil skeleton of one of the world’s earliest known human ancestors, which was recovered in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974, recently began a six-year tour in the United States, organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The fossil, however, will not go on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the museum’s Human Origins Program, explains why:
“From the outset, the plan to bring ‘Lucy’ to the U.S. ignored an existing international resolution signed by scientific representatives from 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the U.S. The resolution calls for museums–in fact, all scientific institutions–to support the care of early human fossils in their country of origin, and to make displays in other countries using excellent fossil replicas.
It’s especially distressing to museum professionals I’ve talked with in Africa that ‘Lucy’ has been removed from Ethiopia for six years, and that a U. S. museum has been involved in doing so. The decision to remove ‘Lucy’ from Ethiopia also goes against the professional views of Ethiopian scientists in the National Museum of Ethiopia, the institution mandated to safeguard such irreplaceable discoveries.
As a leading research institution in the study of human origins, we at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History believe it is best to support our fellow scientists and institutions that have such mandates and to listen to what our counterparts in other countries have to say.”
Above: A cast of the “Lucy” skeleton, housed in the Human Origins Laboratory, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The cast is a replica of the original fossilized bones, and is conserved in protective foam. The head end of the skeleton (at right) includes Lucy’s nearly complete lower jaw, and the foot end (left) includes thigh, shin, and foot bones. The fossil’s field number is AL-288, and it represents the 3.2-million-year-old species Australopithecus afarensis.
(Courtesy of Rick Potts)
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