HOUSTON — In the Ethiopian language, she is called Dinknesh – a name that means the wonderful, the fabulous, the precious.
But to most of the world, she is known as Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old fossil whose discovery 33 years ago yielded then-unparalleled insights to the origins of humankind.
Next week, the iconic set of bones will be the star of a much-hyped exhibit that is pitting the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Ethiopian government against the world’s scientific community.
Houston museum officials say Lucy must be displayed to offer a glimpse into the history of mankind and a much-needed spotlight on Ethiopia as the cradle of humanity.
But a host of critics, including the world’s most influential paleoanthropologists, say it is irresponsible to exhibit a specimen so fragile and valuable. They fear the fossil will be damaged during the exhibit and a projected six-year tour.
Famed fossil hunter Richard Leakey reproached the Houston museum for using Lucy as a “prostitute” to spur ticket sales, extraordinarily high at $20. Noted museums such as The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York refused offers to exhibit Lucy.
Ethiopian immigrants in Houston are urging a boycott of the exhibit, which will run from Aug. 31 to April 20, 2008.
“There is a lot of damage you can’t see with the naked eyes, caused just by touching her and handling her,” said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, anthropology curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Lucy was studied for six years after her discovery in 1974, but which has refused to exhibit her.
“I’m just sitting and praying that she comes back safe.”
Bringing Lucy to the United States for a museum exhibit also disregards a 1998 UNESCO resolution, signed by scientists from 20 countries, that says such fossils should not be moved outside of the country of origin except for compelling scientific reasons.
“There are two views going around. One is that every conceivable effort to protect Lucy for six years will be done. The other view is that there is no way this fossil is not going to be damaged irreparably,” said Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins program, and one of the scientists who objected to touring Lucy.
“If the fossil is going to be packed, unpacked, shipped again for a number of years, it is pretty likely damage will occur.”
Houston museum officials had named the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as a possible stop, but spokeswoman Laura Holtman said the museum has not yet decided whether to participate. The Field Museum in Chicago said it was working out the final details for exhibition possibly as late as 2010, said spokeswoman Nancy O’Shea.
For the past 27 years, Lucy has been carefully cached in a climate-controlled safe at the National Museum of Ethiopia, taken out only for scientific research or for public exhibit on two rare occasions.
The Houston exhibit will be the first public viewing outside her homeland. The exhibit, which is being heavily advertised on television and billboards, had already sold 2,150 advance tickets by Thursday.
“The concern that people express about safeguarding Lucy is one we share. We are on the same page,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at the Houston museum. “We will make sure she is kept safe, the same way we have kept safe other artifacts that have come here.”
Van Tuerenhout, who would not discuss the costs involved in mounting the Lucy show, said his museum had no problem handling the Dead Sea Scrolls for a 2004-2005 exhibit, noting they were far more fragile than what he called a “robust” Lucy.
Unlike the scrolls, however, Lucy seems to evoke an emotional reaction that goes beyond her scientific import.
“Lucy is not just the property of the Ethiopian people. She belongs to everyone,” said Cleveland’s Haile-Selassie. “She is the beginning of humanity.”
Lucy, a hominid fossil named after the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” was discovered in the remote Afar province in northeastern Ethiopia. Although not the oldest human ancestor ever found, her skeleton is among the most complete, with about 40 percent of her bones intact.
Recognizable as something human, but not quite human, she likely weighed about 60 pounds and stood about 3 1/2 feet tall.
Thanks to Lucy, who is classified as Australopithecus afarensis, scientists were first able to establish that human ancestors walked upright before evolving a big brain.
“People care about her. They tend to forget that she is 3 million years old. They forget she is a fossil,” said Mamitu Yilma, director of the Ethiopian National Museum. “Lucy is very precious. We don’t have any replacement for her. Whenever any fossil is found, they are compared to Lucy.”
Even Lucy’s departure from Ethiopia – which took place without fanfare and at night – stirred a sense of loss and mourning among scientists and many Ethiopians, who say she deserved a better send-off.
However, Lucy did not leave Ethiopia alone.
Yilma and the man who has been Lucy’s personal caretaker for the past 20 years both traveled to Houston with the fossil. They flew aboard Ethiopian Airlines, with Lucy’s skeleton ensconced in two climate-controlled, foam-filled suitcases that took more than a year to design.
Before Lucy was packed, her caretaker and museum conservators inspected the fossil to check for signs of damage. After her arrival in Houston, she was examined again to ensure that no harm had come on the voyage.
Until she goes on display in Houston, Lucy will be kept in a climate-controlled vault similar to the one at the Ethiopian museum. Once the exhibit opens, the world’s most famous fossil will be visible inside a specially designed case.
“It was like when someone you love is getting married, both happy and sad,” said Yilma, describing her conflicting emotions when Lucy left Ethiopia. “The one thing that gives me comfort is that I’m here with her.”