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Next week, the skeleton of one of our most famous ancestors, Lucy, goes on display in Houston. It's the first time the 3.2 million-year-old fossil has been displayed outside of Ethiopia. And there are plans for a six-year tour of the U.S. That has many of the world's top scientists furious. The Smithsonian says the tour is irresponsible. Renowned paleontologist Richard Leakey calls it a form of prostitution. The tour is being organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
NPR's Jason Beaubien has our story.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The Houston Museum of Natural Science is a workhorse of a museum. It does what science museums all across the country do - educate, primarily children. It has towering exhibits of dinosaurs, dioramas of African animals, cartoons about where energy comes from. In the lobby, there's an IMAX Theatre and a McDonald's.
It's an unusual place for perhaps the world's most iconic fossil to make its debut outside its homeland.
Mr. DIRK VAN TUERENHOUT (Curator of Anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science): Say hello to our newest friend. It's Lucy.
BEAUBIEN: Last week at the Houston Museum, curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout unveiled the life-size model of Lucy, which will accompany the skeleton. The actual bones won't go on display until late next week.
Mr. VAN TUERENHOUT: She lived about 3.2 million years ago.
BEAUBIEN: Almost inevitably, a local television reporter wanted to know if that was three million or three billion. Van Tuerenhout had assured her Lucy lived three million years ago, with an M.
In 1974, American researchers working in Ethiopia found a collection of fossilized bones representing about 40 percent of an early Hominid, an apelike creature directly related to humans. They named her Lucy after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," which was playing as they celebrated their discovery.
At the time Lucy was thought to be one of our oldest ancestors, but since then, older Hominid remains have been found. It's because she's so old and so rare that many prominent researchers say Lucy should not be shipped around the country in what could be a 10-city tour.
Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has worked with similar fossils and he says they're extremely fragile.
Dr. BERNARD WOOD (Department of Anthropology, George Washington University): If Lucy is removed from a box and then is put on display, and is put back into a box and then is put on display again, as sure as night follows day, it will be damaged. It's not something that might happen. It's something that almost certainly will happen.
BEAUBIEN: But Joel Bartsch, the president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, bristles at the accusation that the tour could damage Lucy. He says the idea for the tour came from the Ethiopian government. And before his museum agreed to exhibit Lucy, she was examined by a group of curators who pronounced her hardy and robust.
Mr. JOEL BARTSCH (President, Houston Museum of Natural Science): So when people say Lucy is too fragile, that's really a bit of a specious argument. Now, is she rare? Is she unique? Is she important to all the world and all of mankind? Absolutely. But she's not too fragile to travel.
BEAUBIEN: Several paleontologists have suggested, however, that a replica should be used in her place. At her home museum in Addis Ababa, cast replicas of Lucy's bones are on display while the real fossils remain locked in a vault. Bartsch, however, said the role of the museum is to exhibit original artifacts. He says a model of Lucy's bones just wouldn't have the same impact.
Mr. BARTSCH: Being in the presence of an original of anything is, you know, takes the message of the object is trying to tell you to a different plain, whether it's a higher spiritual plain or higher intellectual plain, the fact that it is the real deal. No matter how good the replica is, it's still a replica, and that leaves people cold.
BEAUBIEN: Lucy's real bones had only been displayed twice at the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa. Officials there have said there are two reasons for sending Lucy on an American tour. The first is to raise the profile of Ethiopia and attract international tourists. The exhibition also includes artifacts from Ethiopia's more modern human history. The second reason is to raise money for the impoverished African nation. United Nations lists Ethiopia as one of the least developed nations on Earth. Per-capita income is only about $100 a year.
In contrast, tickets to the Lucy show will be $20 a piece. So a family of five in Houston could spend as much seeing Lucy as an average Ethiopian makes in a year. The Houston Museum declined to say what percentage of the revenue from the Lucy tour will go back to Ethiopia saying that information is confidential.
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BEAUBIEN: The exhibition has angered some local Ethiopians, who say Lucy is being put at risk by a reckless regime in Addis Ababa. At the Blue Nile Restaurant in a strip mall in Houston, Dula Abduh says he doubts that any of the revenue from the Lucy tour will reach Ethiopia's underfunded museums.
Mr. DULA ABDUH (Retired Banker): The only benefit is for a museum in Houston to make money. The risk is to whole mankind. And I don't think that risk should have been taken.
BEAUBIEN: Abduh has been in Houston since 1981, long enough to get his U.S. citizenship and almost long enough, he jokes, to be considered a Texan. Abduh calls Ethiopia's current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a dictator who's done little to help his country. Zenawi is a former rebel leader who came to power in 1991.
Recently, Zenawi's administration has been praised by Washington as an ally on the war on terror, yet it's been denounced by human rights groups. After a disputed election in 2005, Zenawi locked up scores of opposition leaders who have since been released.
The negotiations with the Ethiopian government to bring Lucy's fossilized bones to Houston began five years ago. Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis was one of the local politicians and businessmen who went to Addis Ababa to lobby on Houston's behalf. Ellis, who's an avid collector of African art, says Lucy is coming to Houston because Texans are bold and weren't afraid to pursue her.
State Senator RODNEY ELLIS (Democrat, Houston): We do have a world-class museum of natural science. I think that by securing this particular exhibit, it clearly will be something that will go out - go down in the annals of history as a major accomplishment for any museum in the world.
BEAUBIEN: Yet some prominent museums are refusing to participate in the Lucy tour, most notably the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist who runs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian, says the role of museums is to safeguard irreplaceable fossils such as Lucy.
In fact, he points out that a 1998 agreement signed by 20 countries, including the U.S. and Ethiopia, states that hominid fossils should not be moved out of their country of origin except for scientific research. The deal to bring Lucy to Houston, Potts says, ignored the concerns of scientists who've spent their careers collecting, curating, and studying these types of fossils.
Dr. RICK POTTS (Director, Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History): All of us who are actively involved the studies - in studies of early humans seem to be not in favor of the move that is going on.
BEAUBIEN: And those scientists fear that after this show, other rare fossils formed millions of years ago could also go out on the exhibition circuit to the highest bidder. The contract between Houston Museum and the Ethiopian government allows for Lucy to be shown in up to 10 cities. But after Houston, the additional stops on the tour have yet to be finalized.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.