Lucy fossil is up for travel, African leader says

March 9th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

By ERIC BERGER | Houston Chronicle

The president of Ethiopia on Wednesday dismissed the concerns of scientists who worry that Lucy, the famous fossil found in the African country, is too fragile to travel this summer for an exhibition in Houston.

“They are entitled to their opinion,” said Girma Wolde-Giorgis, who visited Houston to complete arrangements for the exhibit, which opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Aug. 31.

At 3.2 million years old, Lucy’s bones don’t belong to the oldest human ancestor ever discovered, but hers is among the most complete skeletons recovered. There are several hundred fragments of bone in the collection, representing 40 percent of a single hominin skeleton. Most of the oldest hominin fossils have been found in Ethiopia, Kenya and Chad.

Lucy was found by Case Western University anthropologist Donald Johanson and one of his students, Tom Gray, in November 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia. The bones were brought to the United States just once, in 1975, when Johanson took them to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for study. They were not publicly exhibited.

“I hope nothing will happen to her,” Wolde-Giorgis said. “Flying across two or three continents does have risk, but several precautions have been taken.”

The decision to display Lucy in the United States “” Wolde-Giorgis said Houston will get the famous fossil first because it had the “courage” to ask “” has prompted criticism from prominent paleontologists. The Smithsonian has refused to participate in the touring exhibition.

Part of the reason is that, in 1998, more than 30 scientists from two dozen countries signed an international agreement not to transport original hominin fossils from their ancestral homelands except for significant scientific reasons.

The Ethiopian government, however, stands to profit from an international exhibition of Lucy, although neither Ethiopia nor the Houston museum has released financial terms of the deal.

Museum spokeswoman Erin Blatzer said it is museum policy not to release financial information on exhibitions.

Mohamoud Dirir, Ethiopia’s minister of culture and tourism, has insisted the money will go toward science museums. But some Ethiopian paleoanthropologists, who say they were not involved in the decision, have expressed concern because they have seen no documents ensuring the funds will be used to promote Ethiopian research.

Wolde-Giorgis declined to allay those concerns on Wednesday. “At this moment we’re not talking about money at all,” he said.

Wolde-Giorgis said his hope for the U.S. exhibition of the bones is to attract tourists to Ethiopia, not only because of its role as a birthplace of humanity but because of its cultural history as both a Christian and a Muslim nation.

“We expect a big number of tourists to visit Ethiopia,” he said. “We have a lot of historic treasures that no other country in the world has.”

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