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Originally published October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 2, 2008 at 12:47 PM

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Lucy on display with controversy

Lucy, the world's most famous fossil, goes on exhibit in Seattle this week. But some scientists say the fragile bones should never have left Ethiopia.

Seattle Times science reporter

Lucy on display

The exhibit features more than 70 bones and fragments from the 3.2 million-year-old hominid fossil, along with artifacts from Ethiopia's rich history.

For tickets and more information: http://pacificsciencecenter.org

The world's most famous fossil goes on exhibit in Seattle Saturday, bringing a glimpse of mankind's origins and a shadow of controversy.

Lucy, a diminutive human ancestor, strode across the plains of Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. Her discovery in 1974 — and her Beatles-inspired name — captured the public's imagination. Her bones helped redraw humanity's evolutionary tree.

When the Ethiopian government decided to send the irreplaceable fossil on the road to boost tourism and burnish the African nation's image, some eminent paleontologists were horrified. Lucy's five-month visit to the Pacific Science Center is the second stop on the tour, which began, amid criticism, at the Houston Museum of Natural History.

Famed fossil hunter Richard Leakey called the exhibit a "form of prostitution" and a "gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity." Both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of Natural History refused to host the show, citing concern that the bones could be damaged in transit.

Scientists grumbled because the skeleton will be off-limits to research during its six-year, 10-city journey. Others pointed out that the exhibit violates a nonbinding 1998 United Nations resolution that said hominid fossils should not be transported out of their country of origin, except for compelling scientific reasons.

But as the exhibit rolls into Seattle, much of the furor has died down.

"We haven't had anyone bring it up here," said Diana Johns, exhibit manager at the Pacific Science Center.

Every precaution has been taken to shield Lucy from damage, said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, of the Houston Museum of Natural History. The skeleton was transported by air in two specially designed containers the size of briefcases. The humidity-controlled display case cradles each of the more than 70 bones and fragments in shallow indentations. A curator from Ethiopia is the only person allowed to handle the bones, and a police officer stands guard.

Lucy has never before been on public display outside of Ethiopia. More than 250,000 people saw the exhibit in Houston, and up to 200,000 are expected in Seattle.

"I'm so excited I can hardly stand myself," said University of Washington anthropologist Patricia Kramer.

Kramer studies human locomotion, the roots of which were subject to debate before Lucy's discovery. Which came first, scientists wondered: big brains, or the ability to walk upright?

Donald Johanson, a young American who had just completed his doctorate, found the answer in a maze of ravines in northeast Ethiopia. He was searching for fossils when a small bone that resembled a human elbow caught his eye. He and his team quickly found more fossilized bones, and realized they had the partial skeleton of a single individual.

She was small, about 3-½ feet tall and a shade over 60 pounds. Her brain was only about the size of a grapefruit, but her legs, hips and vertebrae indicated she walked upright, like humans.

"I think it's best to think of Lucy from the neck up as very like a chimpanzee," Kramer said. "From the neck down, she was much more humanlike."

The skeleton left no doubt our early ancestors first developed the ability to walk upright, which in turn helped spur development of the oversized brain that distinguishes humans from other species.

"We don't really know what the reasons are that early hominids began to walk upright, but it gives you free hands, which allows you to carry things and develop the ability for fine manipulation, including things like creating complex tools," Kramer said.

The night of their discovery, Johanson and his team celebrated over beers. The Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" played in the background. The name stuck, far more memorably than the species' scientific designation: Australopithecus afarensis.

Since 1974, anthropologists have discovered fossils of older hominids, or humanlike creatures, including some that date back 6 million years. Several species have been added to the human tree, including some linages that died out.

But with 40 percent of her bones recovered, Lucy remains one of the most complete skeletons of an early human ancestor, and one of the most important scientific finds of all time, Kramer said.

The exhibit, which also includes artifacts from Ethiopia's rich history, will run through March 8. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit will go back to Ethiopia's museum system.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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