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Friday, August 10, 2007

No Goodbyes for Famous Lucy

USA Today -- ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — After 3.2 million years in East Africa, one of the world's most famous sets of fossils was quietly flown out of Ethiopia overnight for a tour of the United States that some experts say is a dangerous gamble with an irreplaceable relic.

Although the fossil known as Lucy was expected to leave the Ethiopian Natural History Museum this month, some in the nation's capital were surprised the departure took place under cover of darkness with no fanfare Sunday.

"This is a national treasure," Kine Arega, a 29-year-old attorney in Addis Ababa, told The Associated Press. "How come the public has no inkling about this? It's amazing that we didn't even get to say goodbye."

Paleontologist Berhane Assaw said he worked late Sunday at the museum only to arrive Monday morning to find that the fossil and key staff members had left for Texas.

The departure "should have been made public," he said.

Ethiopia's culture minister, Mahamouda Ahmed Gaas, declined to comment.

The Smithsonian Institution has objected to the six-year tour because museum experts do not believe the fragile remains should travel. Even in Ethiopia, the public has only seen the real Lucy remains twice. The Lucy exhibition at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum is a replica and the real remains are usually locked in a vault to protect them.

Lucy goes on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Aug. 31, continuing through April 20, 2008. The other tour stops have not been finalized, according to Melodie Francis, a spokeswoman at the Houston museum. Ethiopian officials have said New York, Denver and Chicago were among the tour stops.

Officials have refused to say how much they had insured Lucy for or how much the Ethiopian government was being paid. Ethiopian government officials have said they will use the money raised from Lucy's display to improve museums and build new ones in Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries.

Zelalem Assefa, an Ethiopian who works at the Smithsonian but was visiting Addis Ababa, said he disapproved of the U.S. tour.

"Money cannot be a justification to export original specimens," Zelalem said. "These are original, irreplaceable materials. These are things you don't gamble with."

The fossilized partial skeleton of what was once a 3 1/2-foot-tall adult of an ape-man species was discovered in 1974 in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between about 4 million and 3 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.

Most scientists believe Australopithecus afarensis stood upright and walked on two feet, but they argue about whether it had ape-like agility in trees. The loss of that ability would suggest crossing a threshold toward a more human existence.

Lucy's name was taken from a Beatles song that played in an archaeological camp the night of her discovery.

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