The fossilized bones of a female hominid creature who lived about three million years ago in what is now Ethiopia, continues to draw crowds at Houston's Museum of Natural Science. Recently visiting the skeleton called Lucy was the man who discovered her on a rocky slope in Ethiopia back in November 1974, anthropaleontologist and director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, Donald Johanson. VOA's Greg Flakus has this report from Houston.
For the past couple of months, school children have been coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see a set of fossilized bones that the world now knows as Lucy.
No visitor has a more special relationship with Lucy than the man who discovered her, anthropaleontologist Donald Johanson.
"I can say that my heart beat a little faster when I knew that the original fossil is in this room," he said.
Johanson found the fossil while working in northeastern Ethiopia on November 24, 1974.
"The first bone I found was a little fragment of a right elbow and I looked at it on the ground and knew from the shape of it that it did not belong to a monkey or any other kind of animal and that it had to come from a human ancestor skeleton," he said.
He says the partial skeleton picked up its name later that night as he and his team worked while listening to a Beatles song on a portable tape player.
"'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' from the 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band album was playing and a girl friend of mine on the expedition, Pamela, said, 'If you really think the skeleton is a female,' and I thought it was because of its very small size, she said, 'why don't you call it Lucy,'" said Johanson.
High school students visiting the exhibit had lots of questions for the anthropologist, and teacher Elizabeth Blevins says the visit proved valuable on many levels.
"I think it helps them connect with history, with science, anthropology, and archaeology and all the sciences that go into understanding our world," she said.
Evolution has become a controversial topic in some communities where conservative Christians claim that the theory contradicts the Bible. But Johanson says most religious people have come to accept evolution as part of God's plan. People who challenge the theory of evolution often deride the notion that humans are descended from monkeys, but Johanson says scientists do not believe that either.
"We are not descended from monkeys. We are descended from a creature that was a common ancestor to the African apes and to us," added Johanson. "If we look at the anatomy, look at the behavior, look at the genetics, who are our closest relatives on the planet today? Chimpanzees and gorillas."
Johanson says Lucy and humans share a common ancestor, but she and homo sapiens then evolved along separate branchs. He says anthropologists may disagree over some aspects of human evolution, but there is broad agreement on the basic theory of where it all began.
"The one thing that all anthropologists have agreed on now is that the fossil record for humanity is so convincing, from the very earliest, very primitive stages, long before Lucy, going back as much as six million years in Africa, that this is really the cradle of humankind, Africa," he said.
Johanson says the people who live in the vicinity of where Lucy was found are proud of their area's importance and are very willing to help him find more fossils.
"The Afar people who live there today know what these bones look like and sometimes when we come back to the field, they will take me by my hand and they will walk me and say 'look what I found when I was herding my goats.' And they know that you should never pick it up, because then you do not know where it is from," he said.
Donald Johanson goes back to Ethiopia every year hoping to find more clues to unlock the mystery of human origins.