After 4 years of an on-again, off-again courtship, Ethiopian officials have promised the hand--and partial skeleton--of the famous fossil Lucy to museum officials in Houston, Texas. The 3.1 million-year-old early human ancestor has been engaged to make her first public appearance ever, in Houston next September, as part of an exhibit that will travel to as many as 10 other museums in the next 6 years. But many archaeologists are trying to stop the tour before it starts.
Ethiopian officials have high hopes that Lucy will do for Ethiopia what King Tut's riches did for Egypt. "It will put Ethiopia on the map as the cradle of mankind and of civilization," says Mohamoud Dirir, Ethiopia's minister of culture and tourism who has introduced a new initiative to boost tourism in his nation. The exhibit, Lucy's Legacy, will include an overview of Ethiopia's rich history from 5 million years ago to the present. Houston Museum officials hope that Lucy's box office appeal will attract millions of Americans. "Lucy has name recognition. That is especially important with schoolchildren. You can show them this is what evolution is about."
But leading researchers in the United States and Africa have been fighting to stop her American tour. They say that transporting the fragile, one-of-a-kind skeleton could damage it, and that taking her out of her homeland violates a 1998 UNESCO agreement signed by 37 scientists from 23 nations against transporting original fossils out of their countries of origin. "There is only one Lucy," says Bruce Latimer, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio, which will not display Lucy. "If something should happen to her, she's irreplaceable." Although Lucy was taken to Cleveland after she was discovered in 1974 by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and his colleagues, she was there only for scientific research--and never exhibited. Museums around the world have put high quality casts on display instead.
Lucy's travels may also undermine efforts to make the Ethiopian National Museum a research center where international scientists go to study fossils. If Lucy and other original fossils are checked out, then foreign scientists will be less likely to go there to study fossils, to invest in research infrastructure, or to train African researchers, says Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Once Lucy goes on tour, other fragile fossils are sure to follow. Kenyan officials, for example, are in discussions with the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, about exhibiting some of the precious hominid fossils found by the Leakeys and others.
A longer version of this story will appear in the 27 October issue of Science.