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Famous Fossil Comes To The Pacific Science Center

Exhibit Explores Early Human History And Ethiopian Culture

She's a rock star. A star so big she's known only by her first name. Named Lucy, reportedly after the popular Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” this rock star is 3.2 million years old. And she's on her first U.S. tour.

For the first time, Lucy will be touring outside of her native Ethiopia at museums throughout the U.S. Currently showing at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the exhibit "Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia” will make its West Coast premiere at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle on Oct. 4, 2008. It's sure to be a sold out show.

Lucy's journey to rock star status began with her discovery in 1974. At the time, she was the earliest known and best preserved example of our hominid ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis. The discovery of her skeleton also facilitated a major breakthrough in understanding of early human evolution. Lucy, according to Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, "made it clear that we walked upright first, well before our brains became our current size.”

In citing Lucy's importance, Van Tuerenhout makes reference to the four major characteristics of early hominids that distinguish the human from the ape lineage: bipedalism, or walking upright; tool use; development of language; and increased brain size. Lucy became a star of the anthropology world when her skeleton yielded the first evidence that bipedalism preceded bigger brains. In the quest to understand which traits came first in human evolution, therefore, Lucy was an important guide. Even now that older and better-preserved fossils have been found, Lucy serves as a benchmark against which all other early hominids are judged. "Even today, 33 or 34 years later, people will still ask whenever a new discovery is made, how that new discovery relates to Lucy,” says Van Tuerenhout.

Because of her preeminent status in the field of anthropology, Lucy is known throughout the world. And nowhere is she more beloved than in her native Ethiopia. Known as Dinkenesh, or "you are beautiful,” she is considered a national treasure. This makes it all the more remarkable that the Ethiopian government has decided to share Lucy with museum visitors throughout the U.S.

Like many rock stars, Lucy seems to generate controversy wherever she goes. The decision to allow Lucy to come to the United States was not without debate. Prominent paleoanthropologists worried that shipping the fossil could cause irreparable damage. There were suggestions that Lucy's tour was a form of exploitation of the fossil and her homeland. A number of museums, including the Smithsonian, turned down the offer to put Lucy on display.

Those museums that accepted the exhibit, including the Pacific Science Center, have had to strike a delicate balance between cultural sensitivity and putting on a good show. "Museums all over the world safely transport and display priceless objects to provide the public with authentic experiences with real objects,” comments Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. Stein also cites that the Ethiopian government agreed to exhibit Lucy only at institutions with proven track records of caring for priceless artifacts.

As a demonstration of the Pacific Science Center and the Burke Museum's concern over Lucy's well-being, they will co-sponsor a lecture discussing the delicate precautions taken in preparing Lucy for her world tour. This discussion will be part of a broader "content-rich lecture series of some of the country's top research scientists to discuss and share information about the state of paleontology today,” according to the Burke Museum's communications director, MaryAnn Barron.

Barron sees the museum's participation in the Lucy's Legacy exhibit as a fulfillment of its larger goals. "The Burke Museum is the region's top natural history museum whose mission and niche is to present cultural and science-based educational programming,” and the lecture series accompanying the exhibit is an example of that type of educational programming. The Burke Museum's Director Stein echoes this sentiment and hopes "the opportunity to view the original fossil will stimulate many people to learn about paleoanthropology and create productive dialogue about human evolution.”

Coupled with information about human evolution, the Lucy's Legacy exhibit also aims to teach about the history and culture of Ethiopia. "The goal of the exhibit is to expose as many people as possible to other aspects of Ethiopia,” says Van Tuerenhout, a sentiment echoed by Ethiopia's Honorary Council General Solomon Tadesse. Commenting on the exhibit during a March 25, 2008 press conference at the Pacific Science Center, Tadesse stated that he saw it as an "opportunity for Ethiopia to present its culture.”

The historical and cultural portion of "Lucy's Legacy” focuses on such characteristically Ethiopian subjects as the Queen of Sheba, coffee, Rastafarianism, and the Ark of the Covenant, among others. According to Van Tuerenhout, the motivation to educate about Ethiopia is really to educate about humanity, and to "share with people this information about six million years of Ethiopia's past, most of which I would say is general human past. These are your roots, these are my roots, this is where we all came from.”

Commenting on Lucy's potential to educate and motivate particularly young scholars, Van Tuerenhout replies "it's not a quest, I would say, that comes to an end after you see Lucy. I hope it's the beginning of a quest.” And what other rock star has the power to inspire a quest into the history of humankind?

Sara Selgrade recently received a doctorate in genome sciences from the University of Washington.


Top: Lucy's partial skeleton will be on display at the Pacific Science Center from Oct. 4, 2008 to March 8, 2009. Image Courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Bottom: Imagining what Lucy might have looked like. Photo courtesy of the Pacific Science Center.

For more information:

Hear paleontologist Donald Johanson describe how he found Lucy's skeleton in 1974:

or come to his lecture at the University of Washington (see sidebar.)

Curious about how fossils form? The NOVA program "In Search of Human Origins" explains how Lucy's skeleton may have gone through the process 3.2 million years ago:

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