AP Interview: Leakey calls Lucy skeleton tour ‘prostitution’ – Associated Press

August 10th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI, Kenya: Ethiopia’s dispatching of the Lucy skeleton on a six-year-tour of the United States is akin to prostituting the fragile, 3.2 million year-old fossil, paleontologist Richard Leakey said Friday. (more…)

NAIROBI, Kenya: Ethiopia’s dispatching of the Lucy skeleton on a six-year-tour of the United States is akin to prostituting the fragile, 3.2 million year-old fossil, paleontologist Richard Leakey said Friday.

The Lucy skeleton — one of the world’s most famous fossils — was quietly flown out of Ethiopia earlier this week for the U.S. tour. Leakey, one of the world’s best-known fossil hunters, is not the first to criticize what some see as a gamble with an irreplaceable relic. The U.S. Smithsonian Institution also has objected to the tour, and the secretive manner in which the remains were sent abroad has raised eyebrows in Ethiopia, where the public has seen the real Lucy fossil only twice.

“It’s a form of prostitution, it’s gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity and it should not be permitted,” Leakey told The Associated Press in an interview at his Nairobi office.

Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment, but have said in the past that proceeds from the tour would 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 this week his museum will use “the utmost care.”

Lucy, the fossilized partial skeleton of what was once 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 between about 3 million to 4 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.

The U.S. State Department approved the exhibit for temporary importation into the U.S., saying that display of Lucy and the 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 get damaged.

“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.

“The point is, what is the benefit of taking one of the most iconic examples of the human story from Africa to parade it around in second-level museums in the United States?” he said.

Leakey is one of the world’s most renowned paleontologists. His team unearthed the bones of Turkana Boy — the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found — in the desolate, far northern reaches of Kenya in 1984.

He is also a conservationist credited with helping end the slaughter of elephants in Kenya during the 1980s.

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