Why I Love Lucy

By macten via Flickr

As soon as I heard that Lucy was going on tour, I knew I had to see her. Lucy is a star. The 1974 discovery of this 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton in Ethiopia single-handedly extended the known time that hominids had walked upright on earth by a million years. Her lack of a large brain settled a decades-long scientific debate about which capacity came first. Hastily named after the song playing in paleontologist Don Johanson’s camp the night of her discovery, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Lucy became the new “first woman,” a bona fide scientific icon, a poster child for evolution.

At least, she was for me. I have spent the last two years researching a book about people who search for the Garden of Eden on Earth. The search has been full of colorful characters, all extrapolating from verses of Genesis and the science of their day to make their case that the Garden of Eden existed and that they knew where it was: The North Pole, Iraq, Mongolia, wherever. My research has taken me to the Mormon Garden of Eden in Missouri, the Serpent Mound in Ohio, and the Creation Museum in Kentucky. When I heard about Lucy I thought the chance had finally come to show my support for the real theory of human origins: evolution.

I didn’t even mind the nontraditional location. Lucy’s Legacy, sponsored by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is appearing through October 25th at the brand new Discovery Times Square Exhibition Center, right around the corner from the MTV Store. It has the same producers the controversial Bodies exhibition. After all, evolution needs all the hype it can get, and Lucy deserves to cross over into pop culture.

I visited on Lucy’s opening day, expecting throngs. But since the attraction she shared a double-bill with, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit, hadn’t opened yet, the Center’s colossal halls were nearly empty. A staff member shrugged, “Not everybody knows who Lucy is.” That’s for sure. A giant street-level poster of her reconstructed face stared, forlorn, out at Sardi’s.

I paid my $20 and descended into the cavernous exhibit space, where I quickly learned that the show’s other co-sponsor is the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Lucy’s opening act is a transparent pitch for Ethiopia’s place in cultural history. Ornate ceremonial crosses in glass cases, delicate manuscripts of the Qur’an, a lilting female voiceover earnestly enumerating Ethiopia’s many claims to cultural fame: it’s home to the fourth holiest city in Islam, the oldest Orthodox Christian communities in the world, not to mention, “according to deeply held beliefs,” the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Lucy, the exhibit asserts, is the crowning cultural achievement of Ethiopia. After her discovery, the film asserts, “Ethiopia can rightfully claim to be the cradle of mankind.”

If Lucy was the new Eve, Ethiopia wanted to be her Eden. And why not? It is where she was found and where her bones have been kept all these years, in a tiny room in the National Museum in Addis Ababa. At the end of the exhibit, behind a curtain on the way to the gift shop, there was even a discreet little card table piled with Xeroxed flyers for Ethiopian Airlines’ nine-day “Lucy’s Legacy” tour package, complete with Sheraton accommodations and an English-speaking guide. You can add a Tanzanian safari for an additional fee.

It’d be easy to scoff at such blatant commercialization of a scientific discovery, if it weren’t for the fact that Ethiopia really needs the help. In a New York Times article about Lucy’s first tour stop, in Seattle, the honorary consul general of Ethiopia himself admitted that his country “has an image problem.” That strikes me as an understatement: most people think “Ethiopia” then think “starving children.”

Lucy presents an almost perfect PR opportunity. Unlike Eve, Lucy comes without baggage, without sin. Culturally speaking, she was created “ex nihilo,” with no myths of origin except The Beatles. They need only to make Lucy Ethiopian by re-baptizing her with the Amharic name originally bestowed by the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture in 1974 but ignored ever since: Dinkenesh. According to the Ethiopian government, “Dinkenesh” means “Thou art beautiful,” but according to Lucy’s discoverer Don Johanson it means “wonderful thing.”

It’s hard to say if hitching its wagon to Lucy (I mean Dinkenesh) will help Ethiopia’s cause. In Seattle, the show drew only 100,000 visitors in six months and lost money. But they’re trying. With colorful timelines, magazine-style sidebars, and 20th-century cultural relics, the Ethiopian government’s amiable narrative emphasizes the unity of Ethiopia’s Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, and the continuity of its rulers from the ancient kings of Aksum through the final emperor, Haile Selassie, whose reign ended in 1974.

I thought they meant that Selassie died in 1974, until I went home and found out that he was actually violently deposed, beginning Ethiopia’s generation-long revolutionary war, the war that pit Muslim against Christian, military against civilians, and which gave my generation its predominant impression of Ethiopia: famine and poverty on an epic scale. So there’s a reason the Ministry of Tourism wants to freeze-frame the country’s history in 1974, right before this peaceful, unified vision all fell apart. And 1974 was, as the video puts it, “coincidentally” the same year that Lucy was discovered. Through Lucy, icon of evolution, we can get back to a vision of Ethiopia before its Fall.

By macten via Flickr

Making my way through every search for the Garden of Eden, through every manifesto claiming to confirm some version of biblical truth, there inevitably came a moment when I realized it was not just a religious quest, but a political one also. The two motivations were inseparable. The Hong Kong Christian writer who published a book in 1914 claiming that humanity originated in Outer Mongolia wanted to recreate that Eden as a refuge from World War I. In the 1950s, a failed Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate found the origin of humanity near Tallahassee, and opened a Garden of Eden Park to promulgate his ideas about free-market economics. (The “snake” in his Garden was the “welfare state.”) In the 1980s, when Jerry Falwell and others brought fundamentalist Christianity back into the political limelight, their young-Earth creationism became part of a litmus test for believers, along with biblically justified stances against abortion and gay rights.

Westerners always have had a devil of a time imagining the origin of humanity in Africa, despite the longstanding evidence. Darwin started it: in his 1871 Descent of Man, he was tentative: “It is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. But it is useless to speculate on this subject.” In 1896, British explorer Henry Seton-Karr was convinced that the stone tools he found in Somaliland (now part of Ethiopia) were the earliest evidence of human life ever discovered; he claimed they were “from the original Garden of Eden.” But religion wasn’t going to let science place human origins in Africa. “I shall not think that Adam ever used those bludgeons unless he can show a photograph of Eve knocking the apple down with one of them,” quipped distinguished Harvard theologian D. G. Lyon in a public response to Seton-Karr. No, the real location of the Garden of Eden was, obviously, in the Middle East. “There ought,” he said, “to be some grand discoveries some time in Palestine and the vicinity of the Holy Land.” Poor Seton-Karr, I thought as I moved from the Ethiopian half of the show to the Lucy half. Had he only lived a century later, the Ethiopian government would have sponsored his research.

In another film, the narrator heralds the “history-making partnership” between Ethiopia and Houston, which has allowed Lucy to come out of her exile in Addis Ababa. “Lucy is here, now, ready for her new role as ambassador for her homeland.” Then Don Johanson himself comes onscreen to reinforce the point: “Africa really is the cradle, the crucible, where we were crafted by natural selection.”

Ironically though, that was not the conclusion Don Johanson reached in 1974. According to the New York Times, immediately after discovering Lucy, Johanson and his team proposed the “revolutionary postulate” that humanity originated not in Africa, but across a land bridge in the Middle East. (The African fossils seemed to get progressively older as they moved eastward across the continent.) They soon thought better of this, but it was a culturally significant stumble. The difference between an origin in Africa and an origin in the Middle East may be just a land bridge for those scientists, but the geography carries millennia worth of cultural history along with it.

Actually, neither Ethiopia nor the Middle East has a solid scientific claim to being “the cradle of humankind.” The latest DNA research places human origins closer to Namibia, due to the diversity of click-based African languages spoken there. Does that mean Namibia should upstage Lucy? Maybe, but I still wanted to see her.

As I progressed through the exhibit, I sensed an unfinished air to it—the staff seemed surprised to see me, and a workman wandered through inquiring about painting the giant replica of the famous Obelisk of Aksum. The plaintive flute music that accompanied the displays about Haile Selassie followed me, drifting over the temporary exhibit walls and playing oddly homespun accompaniment to the higher production value of the paleontology exhibit.

I followed the bright yellow arrows labeled “Lucy” down a makeshift passageway lined with bright Ethiopian art prints. Lucy’s namesake Beatles song plays softly in tandem with that ever-present flute. In the exhibit’s final room, there are three versions of Lucy. First, the reproduction, a confident-looking hairy ape striding forward, toes separated, fingers surprisingly human. A few feet opposite, reproductions of the surviving bones have been fixed in a vertical case where they would have fallen on her actual skeleton. The two parallel bones of her right arm appear incredibly short, cut off at the hand.

In between, the real, actual, bones of Lucy recline in a flat, dimly lit glass case with a brief, disarmingly simple inscription. “Lucy, 3.2 million years old.” Behind her, there’s a semicircular mural illustrating the whole dramatic hominid origin story, starting with Lucy’s ancestors all the way through the Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and homo erectus. The mural ends with a large mirror in which we are supposed to see ourselves: “Her story IS your story.”

But to really see yourself, I recommend you ignore the mirror, the mural, and the security guard hovering nearby. Lucy’s legacy doesn’t have much to do with the treasures of Ethiopia, but she does inspire awe. Stand at Lucy’s feet, squint up at her bones, which lie peacefully in their dim little box. Try to imagine everything that has happened on Earth since those fossil bones were covered with flesh. It’s an almost impossible task, calling to mind the amount of time that it would take for this creature with her tiny brain and tree-climbing feet to transform into homo sapiens sapiens, who can look back at ourselves as reflected in her remains and conjure ways to use them to our advantage. Worth the price of admission, any day.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth