BARE BONES: The remains of Lucy on display at Ethiopia’s National Museum in Addis Ababa. Picture: Reuters
“WELCOME home Lucy” banners adorned Ethiopia’s National Museum in Addis Ababa where residents, busloads of schoolchildren and curious foreign tourists waited to catch a glimpse of a 3.2-million-year-old celebrity skeleton.
Lucy, an early human ancestor and known to science as Australopithecus afarensis, is more familiar to her Ethiopian compatriots by her Amharic name of Dinknesh (literally, “you are amazing”).
She recently returned home from a controversial five-year US tour and has received the type of reception usually reserved for the country’s sporting heroes.
Lucy is not the oldest hominid fossil ever found, nor is she the best preserved. So why the fuss?
“From a scientific point of view her species sits on the (human) family tree at a very pivotal point,” says Dr Donald Johanson, the American anthropologist who discovered Lucy in 1974 at the Awash Valley in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression.
“There is a major split … one that leads to creatures that we put in the genus homo that had large brains and began to make stone tools, and another branch that ultimately died out,” he said on the day of Lucy’s homecoming last month.
At the time the diminutive Lucy was unearthed ( she measures just 1m) she was the oldest and most intact hominid ever excavated. Dr Berhane Asfaw, a resident researcher at the National Museum of Ethiopia, explains the significance: “It was not a single specimen — not a mandible or a skull — it was a skeleton. It was the first of its kind of that age with that kind of completeness. It was 40%, but that 40% … gives us the full information about that particular (species).”
Lucy left for the US in 2007 amid much controversy. It was late prime minister Meles Zenawi’s idea to send her as an ambassador to illustrate Ethiopia’s rich history.
The money raised from the tour was used to upgrade research and storage facilities at the national museum which are now said to be among the best in the world.
“Some of us didn’t agree,” says Dr Berhane. “We didn’t think that it was important, even for the money. I was the first one to say no. I said no up until the end and I’m still not convinced it was important.”
Dr Berhane feared it would set a precedent, but his main fear was that Lucy would be damaged. “If she is endangered then the loss is not only for one country. The loss is for the whole of humanity.”
After her departure, there were rumours Lucy had been sold in the US. Even now, when the actual skeleton rather than a replica is on display at the museum for the first time, doubts remain. “Is she the real Lucy?” Meseret Tesfaye muses before visiting the exhibition.
“How do we know it is her?”
Along with important cultural artefacts from across Ethiopia, Lucy was exhibited in Seattle, Southern California, Houston and at New York’s Discovery Museum where hundreds of thousands of people came to see her.
She is known and loved throughout her homeland. The exhibition in Addis was extended beyond the scheduled five days because so many Ethiopians wanted to see her. In honour of her name, the women’s national football team is known as the Lucies.
“I think that she is of such interest to people worldwide because people perceive her as an individual, as a person,” says Dr Johanson. He also attributes her popularity to her “friendly” name which was chosen as The Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing in the camp on the night she was discovered.
Beyond being an envoy for Ethiopia, Dr Johanson thinks she has a wider, global significance.
“Lucy’s message to humanity is that we all have a common origin,” he says. “We are united by our past and in a way she expresses the view that if we have a common ancestry and we are a common people today, we have a common destiny.”
• Elissa Jobson is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and writes for Business Day.
Source: Business Day Live – BY ELISSA JOBSON, MAY 22 2013, 17:34