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Web Posted: 09/06/2007 2:00 CDT

Houston welcomes Lucy, our ancestor


HOUSTON — No, we're not talking about the redheaded TV star nor the angel kicking butt for Charlie. We mean Lucy the hominid, or what is left of her.

If You Go
Houston Museum of Natural Science, One Hermann Circle Dr.; tickets for the special exhibition: $20 for adults; $12 for children (ages 3-11), seniors and students.
Info: or (713) 639-4629.

Known only by her first name, she comes to America in a newly opened exhibit called "Lucy's Legacy" — and Houston will be the first U.S. city to receive her.

The show includes The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, exploring the country's recorded human history, from the ancient civilization of Axum to the last emperor of 1974, showing more than 100 artifacts, fossils, manuscripts, paintings, coins, musical instruments and religious artifacts.

Hosted and organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the show took four years to complete.

But why Houston?

"The decision made by the Ethiopian government to send Lucy to Houston was very simple," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the museum's curator of anthropology. The link between Ethiopia and Texas was established by U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland of Houston, who traveled to Africa in 1989 on a relief mission and died when his plane hit an Ethiopian mountainside, killing him and 13 other passengers from government, humanitarian and development organizations.

The Lucy Legacy will be in Houston for several months, then will tour the United States for six years and visit several other museums, yet to be announced.

A controversy surrounds the travel and the showing of the fragile bones. The Smithsonian Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have both declined to show them. In 1998, the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology created a resolution stating that such fossils should not travel outside their own country, a resolution adopted by 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the United States.

Even renowned archaeologist Richard Leakey has criticized the decision to put Lucy's bones on the road. Tuerenhout expressed his respect for Leakey, but assured that all the proper precautions have been taken to protect the fragile remains. The decision to allow the fossil to travel was made by the Ethiopian government, he said.

"Our mission at the museum is one of education and promoting dialogue," he said. "We are honored that our museum was chosen to premiere this exhibition. We share the concerns for Lucy's safety, which also extends to the artifacts in the exhibit. Before we agreed to accept the exhibition, a respected team of conservators specializing in hominid fossils was brought in to evaluate Lucy's condition; they pronounced her to be hearty, robust and fully capable of traveling without damage."

Lucy is not only part of Ethiopia's cultural heritage, Tuerenhout added; she is also part of world heritage. "She deserves to be on the world stage for all to see, and we applaud the Ethiopian government's decision to allow this to happen," he said. "She will serve as a unique goodwill ambassador for her country and bring greater understanding about our own past."

Lucy's story — and ours

Imagine Africa, a huge continent, 5,000 miles long, a vast land of many vistas, deserts, jungles, lakes, volcanoes, tropical forests, low lands and long rivers.

The Rift Valley in Ethiopia is where our story starts. And we mean our story, the origin of the human race, all of the human race. We may look different but we all came from the same root, the same place, the same ancestors, and DNA research provides irrefutable proof.

Imagine silence, and then some leaves rustling in the wind of enormous tall trees. The dawn is just heating up into day, the sky is pure blue and the animals, small and large, are resting quietly. The landscape is made of lakes and woodlands. Then a small hominid (not quite an ape, not yet a human) of the female gender, just under 4 feet tall, walks by. She stands erect on two legs, something quite new for her species. She is an australopithecus afarensis.

She resembles a chimpanzee, but she is not one. She weighs about 60 pounds; she walks upright, as her recovered hip joint and pelvis bones proved. She is in her 20s and for us now, she is about 3.2 million years old. Why did she get up? Maybe because the leaves of the trees were becoming too high for her to reach? Maybe because she had too many predators at ground level?

Africa was probably even hotter than now, reaching 125 degrees in the Hadar region where she lived, so perhaps she wanted to expose less of her body surface to the sun, to protect herself, to catch a breeze, to conserve the water in her body. Maybe it was to simply use her hands to feed from the fruit trees. Maybe it was to survey her little ones.

Perhaps she was living in a tree, so she had to reach the first branches before she could go home.

That we don't know. One thing we do know is that she stood up, and the line of hominids becoming homo sapiens and then homo sapiens sapiens (us, that is) has never looked back. Hominids all stayed upright on their feet from that point forward.

Darwin claimed (in short) that according to natural selection, the biological environment is what makes species evolve. In 1871, he also declared that humans and African apes must share some traits. Lucy represented one of many versions of evolution, all happening at the same time.

"In the distant past there was not one kind, but a number of very different kinds of men in existence," explained anatomist Arthur Keith.

Having traits from both apes and hominids, found remains prove that bipedalism (standing on two feet) was present way before bigger brains and therefore shows that humans did not become bipedal to accommodate their tool-making abilities. Our kind started to look like us about 130,000 years ago and the first ones to come out of Africa did so about 35,000 years ago.

Today, only one single species survived: ours.

Three and a half million years ago, as massive volcano eruptions, followed by heavy rainfall, transformed the natural environment into a kind of natural concrete, forever trapping remains and bones.

The chance discovery

In 1974 in the Afar region of Hadar (Ethiopia), paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray found the skeleton that later became known as Lucy, one of the oldest hominids of that species ever discovered. As they were driving back to their camp after a day of mapping and sorting out fossils, by chance, they decided to take a different route. Suddenly Johanson spotted a bone that his very well-trained eye quickly identified as a hominid forearm bone, then he saw a skull, a femur, some ribs, a pelvis, all of hominids origin.

After two weeks of sheer excitement and hard labor, they excavated 40 percent of a single hominid skeleton, what was to become the miniature superstar of human evolution.

While working at their base camp, the radio was playing the Beatles song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and the little female lying in pieces on their table was so named.

In his book Lucy's Child, Donald Johanson writes: "Paleoanthropology is a science forever rooted in chance." Describing the sheer luck of finding Lucy's bones, he adds: "Consider what it means to find a hominid skeleton: when an animal dies on the savanna, the scent of its decay immediately attracts scavengers. They tear apart the hide, devour the soft tissue, crush the bones in their jaws. Very little remains uneaten. The few bone fragments and teeth left behind will be bleached white by the sun, and in three or four years disintegrate into dust. They will leave no trace of their existence."

Lucy stands as the mother of us all. Her species was the ancestor of humankind. She has become the most famous model of all time.

Sidonie Sawyer is a French-American journalist who is passionate about archaeology and the story of the origin of human life. She wishes one day to end up digging in Africa. She lives in Miami where she works for the Miami Herald.


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