A Road Trip for Lucy?

The famous skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed Lucy is going on a field trip:

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.

i-83dbe9c0a477a6ec6aa5f6831e541b1a-lucy150_5980_1.jpgEthiopian 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.

A detailed description of Lucy can be found at the Institute of Human Origins.

Here is a list of the reasons by those protesting the exhibition abroad from their website, AIGA forum:

Why is it exporting the original Lucy fossil to a foreign country for a long-term, multiple-institution loan a bad idea for ETHIOPIA and for SCIENCE?

  • 1. Such exhibition will constitute a violation of international convention (Protocol), exploiting the country and setting a harmful precedent.
  • 2. Export and handling will expose the irreplaceable original antiquities to damage, unauthorized replication, and possible loss. Accurate replicas (casts) are sufficient and routinely used for exhibition display (art damage news).
  • 3. Long-term commercial exhibition of the original fossils overseas will increase tourism in US cities, but will simultaneously harm future tourism to Ethiopia. When tourists can see Ethiopian treasures in major American and European cities, they are far less likely to travel to Ethiopia to be near the real things.
  • 4. Ethiopia will give up control over scientific access and rights to the original fossil to a single overseas institution that will, in turn, broker access to other institutions for additional exhibition and profit-taking in the form of entrance fees, and giftshop/internet sales (keychains, posters, T-shirts, books, videos). The case of a European institution copyrighting and commercializing imagery of Ethiopian antiquities is a recent bad example of how such practices can cause national harm.
  • 5. Scientific studies of the original fossils will happen overseas during the exhibition period, rather than in Ethiopia. It is certain that under these circumstances, scientific study will be relegated secondary status to commercial exhibition, and scientific study access will be restricted.
  • 6. Ethiopia will dedicate and open a major state-funded modern laboratory facility at the National Museum for the curation of unique and diverse antiquities during the export period. Unfortunately, the best of the Ethiopian collection will not be there if the export is carried out as planned.

(Links in the original).

Examining their reasons, I can see their point on some of them but not on others.

1) With respect to the issue of international agreement, the UNESCO agreement states:

We strongly recommend that original hominid fossils should not be transported beyond the country of origin unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the foreseeable future in the country of origin.

Both the US and Ethiopia are signatories to this agreement, so you have to ask whether there is some compelling scientific reasons to export the skeleton. It doesn't sound to me like the shipment is for a scientific investigation, rather it is for public exhibition. Therefore, it would appear that this shipment is in violation of that. Whether that matters to some people is a matter of preference, but I tend to be of the opinion that you don't sign agreements you don't intend to keep.

2) I don't know if I am concerned about damage to the skeleton. Listen, if you can ship priceless pieces of art without damaging them, you can certainly do it with Lucy. The part that I agree with though is about the replicas. I can't really understand why it is absolutely necessary that the skeleton be the original.

I mean, yeah, it's cool to say that you saw the real one, and in that sense the real one is more effective at motivating the public to take an interest in science and all that jazz. But is that really a compelling enough reason? I don't think so.

3) I see the point about increasing tourism to Houston, but do they really believe that there are a lot of people who are going to say "Hey, you know the real skeleton is not coming to Houston. Well, hell, we might as well go to Ethiopia then." I just don't see that happening for many people. The people who are going to travel to Ethiopia are the really serious and scientists.

4) Can the Ethiopian government enforce a copyright on a fossil found on their soil? I am not certain about the legal issues, but with respect to the moral issues it seems bizarre. It would be like saying that Wyoming could enforce a copyright on depictions of the Tyrannosaurus because they found a particularly good skeleton of one on their soil. On the other hand, "Lucy" as let us say a skeletal personality has value, and a value peculiar to that skeleton. But it doesn't feel right that the Ethiopians get to have that exclusively just because they hold the work. They didn't make it; they just found it. (And in this case, they didn't even find it. Someone else found it on their soil.)

5) I don't know about that. It would depend on how the exhibition is run, and it is probably not something you can predict from the beginning. Surely there is going to be some limited access to the remains to scientists because the public would like to see them. But frankly, scientists working in the US now have limited access because they things are in Ethiopia.

6) This is a scheduling issue, not a scientific or an ethical issue.

On balance, I agree with some of what they are saying. I can't entirely wrap my head around why they have to export the actual remains, unless there are some researchers or experiments that simply cannot be done in Ethiopia. On the other hand, I can't say I entirely agree with the rest of their arguments.

I am curious to hear what others have to say on the subject.

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"I mean, yeah, it's cool to say that you saw the real one, and in that sense the real one is more effective at motivating the public to take an interest in science and all that jazz. But is that really a compelling enough reason? I don't think so."

To see the real one, I'd consider making a special trip to Houston. For a casting, I don't think so. People want to see the real thing. They want to see bones that are millions of years old, not a replica.

Whether it's worth the risk of damage to a valuable scientific artifact is a debatable proposition, but I assume every precaution will be taken to transport it safely, so whatever risk there is will approach zero. Given the political problems in Ethiopia, there is also risk associated with leaving Lucy there.