By RICHARD CHANG / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
You may not believe this, but the world’s most famous fossil was named after a Beatles song.
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was playing on a tape recorder in 1974 as scientists celebrated the discovery in Ethiopia of a remarkably intact, ancient hominid skeleton. At 3.2 million years old, Australopithecus afarensis, as it became known scientifically, was the oldest hominin remains discovered at the time.
American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and his colleagues nicknamed their find "Lucy," after the 1967 tune by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The nickname stuck.
Through April 28, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana is presenting "Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasure of Ethiopia." The exhibition includes the ancient Lucy skeleton, of which 40 percent has been preserved. She remains the oldest and most complete adult human ancestor retrieved from African soil.
"Our mission is to bring the world’s most important arts and culture to California," said Peter C. Keller, president of the Bowers. "When you get down to the basics of human origins, there’s no more important piece than the oldest complete human, or human ancestry remains, than Lucy."
The exhibit also features replicas of Lucy’s skull, what she would have looked like alive, maps, time tables and explanations of human evolution, plus precious cultural objects from Ethiopia.
The exhibition was organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, in collaboration with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. "Lucy’s Legacy" was on display in Houston from August 2007 to September 2008, then traveled to Seattle and New York City.
Lucy returned to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where her remains were kept in storage for about four years. Thus, the Bowers waited for about five years to present this show.
"I think the Ethiopians thought it was time to let it rest," Keller said. "Frankly, the rumor was that the Americans stole Lucy and she’s never coming back. And, of course, anyone in government there knew that that was not the case."
Recently, Ethiopia expressed a desire to bring Lucy back, particularly so an exhibit at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa could coincide with the African Union’s next meeting in May.
So the Bowers show will be the last chance for people outside of Africa to see the famous and important fossil.
"Lucy is our ambassador of good will," said Amin Abdulkadir, Ethiopia’s minister of culture and tourism. "Lucy is our icon. She helps build the image of our country. It’s very good in terms of trade, investment and tourism."
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE EXHIBIT
The Bowers exhibit showcases Lucy’s remains in an airtight, bulletproof glass case. A backlit text panel says Australopithecus afarensis means "southern ape from the Afar region." When she was alive 3.2 million years ago, she measured 3 ½ feet tall and weighed 60-65 pounds.
Nearby, a hairy model of Lucy demonstrates that she may have looked more like an ape or chimp than a 21st century human being. Her jaw protrudes like a gorilla’s, yet her body shape and ability to walk bipedally on her legs do share some strong characteristics with people.
Other displays explain human evolution over the centuries, comparisons of human versus ape and chimpanzee anatomy, and Australopithecus afarensis’ distant connections to Homo sapiens.
A case contains prehistoric tools hominins probably used for food and shelter, and another display explains various dating techniques, including the argon-argon radiometric dating of volcanic ash used to estimate Lucy’s age.
"By looking at Lucy, you can actually look at how we became who we are today through the process of evolution," said Zeray Alemseged, senior curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "Being dated around 3.2 million years old, she is halfway between the common ancestor of humans and apes today. So, she has played a pivotal role, not only in our understanding of the very first upright walking species, but also as a comparative model."
Since Lucy’s discovery, older hominin fossils have been found, some as ancient as 6 million years. In 2000, Alemseged himself discovered a skeleton older than Lucy, another Australopithecus afarensis about 3.3 million years old. Alemseged’s discovery has been nicknamed "Selam," or "Lucy’s child."
However, despite subsequent discoveries, Lucy remains critically important.
"Whenever you find a specimen now," Alemseged said, "you’ll say it’s older than Lucy. It’s younger than Lucy. Shorter than Lucy. Taller than Lucy. So Lucy is basically a benchmark in the history of human evolution."
LUCY IN THE SCHOOLS
Most California school kids encounter Lucy in sixth grade. That’s when human evolution is discussed in the state curriculum, usually in science classes.
The Bowers is finalizing a teacher’s guide to help instructors lead discussions about Lucy and aid in field trips to see her in person. The guide should be online next week at bowers.org/learn.
Nancy Warzer-Brady, vice president of education at the Bowers, said screenings of several Lucy-related films are also planned, along with lectures and scholarships for tours, art classes and transportation.
"It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Lucy and have science and history come alive because when the exhibition closes, Lucy will go back to Ethiopia and rest in her home," Warzer-Brady said. "It could be transforming to a young person who is interested in the sciences. It helps answer the question: Who am I?"
Many adults may be asking that question – and finding answers – as well.
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