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Lucy on Broadway: Discoverer says the famous hominid fossils belong in the limelight

Last night at a packed bar in New York City, Donald Johanson—the paleoanthropologist who discovered Lucy, the world’s most celebrated human ancestor—took swipes at detractors who claim her bones should not be on public display.

In June, "Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia" opened its doors at the Discovery Times Square Exposition Center in New York City despite criticism that transporting her fragile bones from Ethiopia contravened a 1998 UNESCO resolution stating that human fossils should remain in the country of their origin, except for scientific reasons. Back in 2007, Richard Leakey said that the museums taking part in the six-year tour were using Lucy as a “prostitute” to spur ticket sales. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City notably declined to take part.

But Johanson, smuggled in from the Institute for Human Origins at Arizona State University by Brooklyn's Secret Science Club, was not having any of it. Addressing a crowd of more than 300 hipsters, he expressed disdain at the view that fossils should be kept cloistered in the Ivory Tower, hidden from public view. In March, Johanson published Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, co-written with Scientific American editor Kate Wong.

On stage, he said that Lucy’s tour is not a theft of Ethiopia’s heritage but rather a promotional campaign sponsored by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture, which wants the country to be known for more than, as Johanson put it, “starving children". A portion of ticket sales has financed a research center in the nation's capital, Addis Ababa, staffed entirely by Ethiopian scientists. “In addition, Lucy can be seen by everyone,” he remarked. “She is totally safe.”  And to those who say she’s one-of-a-kind and shouldn’t travel on a commercial airlines? “I flew in from Phoenix,” he said, eliciting howls from the audience.

As his slide show depicted, Johanson discovered the 3.2-million year-old fossil of Australopithecus afarensis as a tanned young scientist who was lucky enough to look over his right shoulder on November 24, 1974, in Hadar, Ethiopia. He immediately recognized the remains of a human ancestor poking out of hte ground. His girlfriend at the time christened the fossil Lucy after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".

With an apelike skull and a pelvis indicative of upright walking, Lucy has become both a scientific and a cultural icon. Her significance easily outweighs that 47-million-year-old primate fossil Darwinius masillae, known popularly as Ida. That monkeylike primate’s tenuous connection to human evolution was overhyped in a June media blitz that began with a press conference at the American Museum of Natural History and featured the authentic fossil.

Spokesperson Kristin Phillips told Scientific American that the museum had declined Lucy’s bones in 2007 because of their "rigorous schedule of exhibitions" and agreed to host Ida’s fossil because the press viewing was an “outside event.” The museum now has a replica of Ida at its “Extreme Mammals” exhibit, while the original (Plate B) fossil shares the stage with Lucy at the Times Square Exposition center.

Johanson has already visited the exhibits in Houston and Seattle and, unlike Leakey, apparently has no qualms about Lucy being associated with the world’s oldest profession. During the talk, he even joked that he and a colleague once stopped in at an Ethiopian brothel called the “Lussy Bar” and he had his Polaroid taken with the proprietress who was agog at meeting the man who gave Ethiopia the scientific recognition it deserves.

Image of Lucy courtesy Wikimedia Commons and image of Secret Science Club sign from Brendan Borrell

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