Lucy: why the furor?

So I read this article expecting it to be about evolution, only to find the outrage is that Lucy is being shown anywhere all! This is not our oldest ancestor ever discovered, and is only among the most complete skeletons, so why the outrage by anthropologists? The Smithstonian and NYC Natural History Museum refuse to show Lucy because she is too fragile to move? What?! But they’re happy to have King Tut? Surely Lucy’s main value to us at this point is for public interest and education, right?

You can do education and public outreach just as well with a replica as with the real thing, and anyone who wants a replica can get one. But who knows what further techniques for scientific study may open up? If someone next year figures out a new way to get a wealth of information from a fossil, but it can’t be used on Lucy because she was damaged in travel this year, some anthropologists are going to be mightily angry.

Also, isn’t Lucy the oldest almost complete hominid skeleton ever found? Or perhaps second oldest, I remember reading of another example called “Little Foot” that was around the same time period. This is truly a unique fossil.

Lucy is a hell of a lot more unique than anything to do with King Tut, and in any case I don’t recall that the mummy itself was sent traipsing around.

As Chronos says new techniques are always coming along that permit us to get new info from a fossil. But having the original is critical. The original fossils of “Peking Man” were lost during WWII, and although we have casts, they aren’t really a substitute for the real thing.

Here’s your answer.

Lucy is about 40% complete. That’s pretty amazing, especially when you consider that much of the missing part can be recreated by symmetry. “Little Foot” has been dated at either the same age as Lucy (about 3.2M years), or perhaps as old as 4M years-- the dating at that site is not as clean as at Hadar (where Lucy was found). I don’t think that skeleton is quite as complete as Lucy, though.

The “Nariokatome Boy” (usually considered to be a Home erectus specimen) is a much more complete sleleton, but dates to about 1.5M years.

Lucy’s actual fossils are extremely fragile, and so transporting them is risky. These days we can make such excellent replicas that it seems like a bad idea to move the originals around so much. Professionals who want to study the fossils should travel to Africa to do so. There’s only 1 Lucy.

There’s no doubt as to the signifigance of any remains in her class in our quest to better understand where we came from and, in that regard, any event that either removes her from being available for further study or puts her unique wealth of information at risk is going to generate a great deal of controversy.

However, her original bone was long ago replaced by stone and that, coupled with the extraordinary care being given to her travel and display, should insure when she jetsets she’ll fare much better than you or I. There’s a better than excellent chance she’ll return home exactly as she left and the six year hiatus in the lifetimes of study she’ll be subject to will be justified by other tangible benefits that come from the trip.

Provided proceeds from the showing find their way back to fund additional research or help the needy Ethopian poor and not some government official, I believe raising public interest in other parts of the globe is a wonderful idea, pragmatic and intellectually stimulating at the same time and to an even wider audience than previously possible.

The reasons I’ve heard advanced on NPR were:

  1. Potential damage
  2. Removal from scientific reasearch
  3. Display money won’t trickle down to the Ethiopian commoners, who should share in the booty.

I’m underwhelmed.

Everyone needs a cause to feel significant and give their personal bitching a little free publicity.

In general there is a powerful benefit for paleontology by raising awareness–future scientists; more willingness to donate money; sensitivity about digging up sites to put up a 7-11; and an appreciation of the descent of the family of man.

Sure, some plastic bones would look just like the real thing. Thank you, Mr Smithsonian specialist. It ain’t the same thing and it doesn’t make the same connection. Go play with your own plastic dinosaur replicas and see if it gives you the same gut reaction. And Mr Cleveland curator: she might not come back safe, but she’s had 27 years to get studied. These things happen. On the other hand, your closet stashes might accidentally burn down, too. Now back to your offices.

Many common people’s first instinct upon viewing a precious original artifact such as King Tut or Lucy would be trying to figure out how to re-enact their own version of Weekend at Bernies with the remains. I’m okay with that happening with casts. But precious original artifact? Not so much.

Yep, smells like snobbery. Only scientists are allowed to look at the bones? Bah! Strange that there wasn’t a huge outcry about the possibility of damage to the bones when the skeleton was being moved around the world from research lab to research lab.

Maybe all this furor is artificial because the “bones” going on tour actually are replicas, but they don’t want the viewing public to know, because the impact of seeing the fossil would be diminished.

Seriously, though, Lucy is very fragile and irreplaceable. With an archeologist’s priorities in mind, I can see how one wouldn’t want it traipsed around, constantly in danger of significant damage.

It may be precisely because of King Tut that anthropologists are concerned. Tut’s mummy was all but destroyed in its many travels, largely due to the general belief at the time that it was more of a historical plaything than something of scientific significance. I remember seeing a film in one of my many anthro classes (sorry, no site) that showed a group of museum-goers ogling the mummy. There was NO security whatsoever, and at one point a man picked up one of the arms to get a closer look.

Of course, security would no doubt be much tighter in this day and age, but I’m sure the experience has left the archaeological community more than a little wary.