By Abebech Tamene
Ethiopia has long been known as the home of three of the world’s oldest and most famous hominid fossils, but one of them had always drawn special attention. She’s “Lucy,” or what Ethiopians call “Dinknesh” (Amharic for “You are wondrous”).
Lucy is housed along with the world-famous Ardi and Selam – all human female fossils – at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.
The oldest, Ardi, is said to have lived 4.4 million years ago, while Selam is said to date back 3.3 million years. Lucy, for her part, is said to be 3.2 million years old.
“Though Ardi is the oldest fossil, its discovery came late. [But] Lucy has now become an international attraction,” Mamitu Yilma of the National Museum told Anadolu Agency.
“Ardi had an ape-like appearance. Unlike human beings, it was hanging and swinging from branches of trees side by side with walking, like human beings,” she added.
“When it comes to Lucy, it was erect, walking like human beings; it was discovered more than 30 years before Ardi,” said Yilma. “This is why Lucy has become an icon and is used as a benchmark by scientists coming up with any new fossil discovery.”
The three fossils were discovered in Afar in the country’s northeast. Lucy was the first to be discovered – found in 1974 by U.S. paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray.
As the paleoanthropologists celebrated their discovery in Afar, the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing on a tape recorder. That’s why they decided to name the fossil “Lucy,” Yilma said.
Astonished by the find, Bekele Negussie, a Culture Ministry official in 1974, gave the fossil her Ethiopian name when he shouted “Dinknesh!” meaning “You are wondrous!”
Twenty years later, Ardi was unearthed by a team of more than 40 scientists, including Ethiopian researcher Berhane Asfaw. Then Selam was unearthed in 2000 by Ethiopian scientist Zeresenay Alemseged.
Scientists believe Selam was a female child between three and five years of age when she died. Lucy is thought to have been between 18 and 25 years when she died.
Lucy made headlines in Ethiopia recently when media reports claimed that the fossil on display at the National Museum was only a cast of the original, asserting that the real Lucy had never returned from the United States, where she was the subject of a five-year tour dubbed “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.”
Yilma, however, dismissed the allegations, saying Ethiopian scientists had confirmed – using different methods – that the original Lucy fossil had returned home intact.
“Every piece of it was coded, numbered and registered. Our scientists have confirmed that it is the original Lucy that has returned home from the USA,” Yilma said.
“Our scientists and Dr. Johanson, who discovered the fossil in 1974, have confirmed that the original Lucy has returned home safely,” she added.
Today, hundreds line up outside the museum daily to have a look at the early human ancestor. According to officials, the non-profit museum receives an average of 1000 visitors a day.
This has prompted a former Ethiopian minister of culture and tourism to dub Lucy the country’s “mute ambassador,” Yilma said.
“After Lucy’s tour to the U.S., a number of foreign countries are asking to display the fossil in their respective countries. But the decision will be made by the government,” she added.
“On the other hand, international visitors, including from the USA, are flocking to Ethiopia after Lucy was displayed in the USA. They say that they come here to see Lucy’s home,” she said.
The government, Yilma said, was also planning to make use of Afar, the area in which Lucy was discovered, as a tourist destination.
“Millions of years ago, Afar was a green area covered with trees and different kinds of plants, including vegetables and fruits. It had rivers and plenty of water necessary both for humans and animals,” she asserted.
“Scientific researchers identified the remains of different animals – including hippos and fish, among others – in Afar. This is an indication that Afar had rich water resources at the time,” she added.
“Through a long process, Afar became dry, as we can see it today… It is located in volcanically active areas of the African Rift Valley and fossils are being discovered along the valley,” she went on.
“This volcanic eruption is sometimes useful because it reveals fossils hidden in the ashes,” Yilma said.