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ETHIOPIA's rich heritage: Lucy's birthplace is globally significant

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Author Topic: ETHIOPIA's rich heritage: Lucy's birthplace is globally significant  (Read 4709 times)
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« Reply #15 on: February 27, 2009, 06:16:06 pm »

Osvaldo Cortez, a sixth-grader at Chief Moses Middle School, is very intrigued by a display about the cranial capacity of, from left, a chimp skull, a Lucy-era skull and a human skull, at the "Lucy's Legacy" exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.

                                        Students may be last in U.S. to see Lucy

                         Time waits for no (wo)man -- ancient evolutionary ancestor or not


(Editor's Note: Officials at the Pacific Science Center say they do not know the exact amount of financial losses expected due to low attendance at the "Lucy's Legacy" exhibit. A story on page A8 in Thursday's Seattle P-I incorrectly attributed an estimate of the losses to a spokesperson. Attendance at the exhibit has doubled to about 2,000 visitors on weekend days. The story incorrectly reported the average attendance as well as the title of Diana Johns, who is the exhibit project manager.)

When the gang of sixth-graders in Kelly Frederick's class at Chief Moses Middle School heard that Lucy was not doing well, they decided to raise a fuss and do something about it.

Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old fossil remains of an ancient ancestor to modern humanity, was not doing well in terms of expected turnout at the Pacific Science Center. Despite being one of the most important finds in the study of human evolution, the $2.25 million exhibit "Lucy's Legacy" has drawn perhaps less than half the number of visitors the center had needed, something like 250,000, to simply break even. The exhibit closes March 8.

A news story went out in the media about how nobody was coming to see Lucy, about big losses and lay-offs at the center. So when sixth-graders Alex Naccarato and Mercedez Cloninger heard about this, they and their classmates decided to raise some money of their own.

"We had been studying Lucy in class," Naccarato said. They were surprised to learn the famous fossil was so close (by Moses Lake's standards, 200 miles isn't so far), and that this could be the last chance for anyone in the U.S. to see the discovery. Naccarato and Cloninger's pitch to their local paper got a story written about the students' desire to see Lucy and ended up raising enough money -- $1,600 -- from parents and other donors to cover the costs for a visit.

"We got money even from people who said they disagreed that Lucy is related to humans," Frederick said. As a science teacher, she has to walk that tightrope -- teaching about evolution while allowing for the fact that some families have serious disagreements with this central tenet of modern biology. "Everyone just wanted to support the students' interest in this."

So on Wednesday morning, two Moses Lake School District buses pulled up at the Denny Street entrance to the Pacific Science Center and disgorged 70-plus enthusiastic middle school students bent on taking advantage of perhaps a last chance to see this ancient precursor to humankind.

"It's pretty cool to get to really see her," said Cloninger, standing next to the glass box containing the bones. "She walked on two legs like us."

Classmate Hayden Martz examined several side exhibits illustrating the anatomical differences and similarities among chimpanzees, Lucy (a proto-human species technically known as Australopithicus afarensis) and modern humans. Martz was dubious about the notion that we shared a common ancestor.

"I think it's still a mystery," he said.

Sixth-grader Michael Goss, however, didn't need any convincing.

"Is it because of her bones that they could tell she was our relative?" Goss asked curator Diana Johns. Yes, Johns said, pointing to a rapt audience of 11- and 12-year-olds some features about the hip and leg bones that scientists say are clear links to modern humans.

"She's in the hominid family just like you," Johns explained and turned from the fossil bones to a life-size re-creation of what Lucy may have looked like roaming the savannas of East Africa. The students peppered her and Frederick with questions about her hands, her long arms, hair, cheekbones and why Lucy had no tail.

"This is going to prompt a lot of discussion when we get back home," said a clearly pleased Frederick. Moses Lake is a fairly conservative and religious community, she said, so she has to be careful to allow free and open debate rather than any kind of indoctrination. But clearly, Frederick said, Moses Lake loves Lucy.

So why didn't Seattle love Lucy as much as expected? With only about a week to go before the exhibit closes, perhaps for good in the U.S., staffers at the Pacific Science Center believe it was not for a lack of interest so much as a "perfect storm" of obstacles and distractions -- the economic downturn, an historic presidential election and an amazingly heavy and persistent amount of snow during the holidays.

"As a result, we've been way under our projected attendance," said Crystal Clarity, spokeswoman for the science center. The organization could lose something like a million dollars on it, Clarity said.

Due to the poor showing in Seattle (which is normally considered a good place for science exhibits), the Chicago Field Museum canceled its plan to take the exhibit. The fossils are soon to return to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which arranged for the exhibit working with the Ethiopian government, but no other museums have stepped up to take part in what had been expected to be a six-year, 10-city tour.

"This is apparently the last time anyone is going to see her in the States," said Donald Johanson, the American paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University who, with his colleagues, discovered the fossil in 1974 near the northern Ethiopian community of Hadar. "It can be a very emotional experience. I'm glad these kids understood what a great opportunity this was and took the initiative upon themselves to come see her."

Johns and Clarity said since the word went out that Lucy hasn't been doing too well, attendance has almost doubled to more than 1,000 per day on the weekends. They said science center will still suffer a financial loss, but the visit from the students of Chief Moses Middle School makes it a little easier to weather.

P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at
206-448-8318 or
« Last Edit: February 27, 2009, 06:18:53 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

Your mind understands what you have been taught; your heart what is true.
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