Lucy!

No, not that Lucy... THIS Lucy! The date of March 11 has become a "seeing things with my own eyes that I never thought I would see with my own eyes" day. Six years ago on March 11, I was standing in Pompeii. This year, I saw Lucy.

Yes, we finally did our road trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Tuesday to visit Texas' most famous 3.2 million-year-old visitor. The exhibit opened last August and closes at the end of April, so we didn't have a whole lot of time left. I think that waiting a while was a good move, since it wasn't very crowded there on a Tuesday afternoon during Spring Break. For a while we practically had the Lucy room to ourselves (save the docent and security guard and a couple with a little girl).

Obviously Lucy was the main draw, but she wasn't the only thing on exhibit from Ethiopia. From pre-historic times, they had some 1.6 million year old hand axes and some nice replica fossils and skulls of other species of hominids from the area. They also had lots of cultural artifacts, especially Christian processional crosses (some of which had some very intricate metal and woodwork on them) and an interesting collection of coins. They also had photos and a model of one of the amazing rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.

We skipped the exhibit movies, although I kind of wish now that we had watched the "introduction to Ethiopia" one at the beginning. I have to admit that I didn't know a whole lot about the country beyond the fact that it was mostly left alone by European colonial powers (probably due to its long history of Christianity) and that they export a lot of coffee. And of course that it is a rich source of ancient hominid fossils. There was an introduction to Lucy video that we also skipped, mostly since I've read both "Lucy" and "Lucy's Child" and know a fair amount about her discovery. They also had her namesake song - The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - playing in the outer room. I was mystified that someone actually complained about that in the comment book at the exit. Maybe they missed the connection and just thought the museum was being cute...

The "Lucy room" as I've decided to call it, was surrounded by a magnificent mural of human evolution from our probable common ancestor with chimpanzees (approx. 6 million years ago) to early Homo sapiens, with explanatory text below it. Lucy herself was in a horizontal case in the middle of the room, with a full-size life-like reconstruction of her in a case nearby. On the wall next to the original fossils was a vertically-mounted replica with the bones placed three-dimensionally in their correct anatomical position. This was very helpful, since you lose the depth information with the way the original fossil is displayed.

I would have liked to have seen some comparative anatomy in the exhibit. The docent on hand did a good job of describing how some parts of Lucy are more human-like and some parts are more chimp-like, but it would have been nice to have a visual reference. I also think they were trying their best to dispel the "if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?" creationist canard. Of course, if you know anything about human evolution, that's a totally silly argument. But I'm guessing that a lot of the people visiting Lucy don't know that "common ape-like ancestor" is what a scientist would say, not that "man evolved from apes". So, they seemed to be careful about how they were phrasing Lucy's place with relation to modern man and apes (chimps in particular). (Although I would point out that the eLucy site does just that... it allows you to pick a bone of Lucy's and see it side-by-side with a modern man and modern chimp).

I would like to compliment the museum for allowing people to get a really good, close view of Lucy in her case. They could have displayed her in a way that kept the people at a distance or behind ropes, but thankfully that wasn't what they did. The case was horizontal, about 3 feet off the ground, and you could get right up along side it, lean over it and look through the sides. And I did. Again, and again. I'm not sure how long I loitered, but I decided to drink in as much of the view as I could. The odds of me ever seeing her again are slim so I tried to make the most of the time we had there.

I know there has been criticism and controversy over transporting such priceless fossils, but I'm so glad that Lucy is visiting the States. First, it was probably the only way I was ever going to get a chance to see her, and second, in a nation where a large fraction of people don't believe in human evolution, or evolution at all, it is important for one of our best pieces of evidence of evolution to be available for people to see with their own eyes. Unfortunately it wasn't convincing to everybody, judging by the "It's all lies" statement I saw in the comment book, but the majority of notes were far more complimentary. I don't know how many people might have their minds changed by seeing Lucy, but even if it is just a few, it's worth it. And for people like me, it was an amazing opportunity to see in person an important piece of the story of human evolution.

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