Sunday, October 07, 2007

So I Saw Lucy This Weekend

I also learned what was the difference between “homonid” and “homonoid”.

It’s huge.

As I reported here a couple of months back, the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas is the first stop of a world tour of Lucy, known in the Anharic language as dinqneš. Lucy, it turns out is a bunch of petrified bones that were found in the Afar province of Ethiopia in 1974.

It’s in an upstairs gallery behind a series of glassed in dioramas of animals frozen in time attacking each other. The ticket taker told the couple in front of us that there was no photography and to turn off their cell phones, also.

Cell phones? No microwaves allowed?

Well the woman did not mention any of this to me so she must have assumed I overheard what she said, and in that she was right. Where she was wrong was in her assumption that the person I was with heard her warnings as well.

She didn’t.

And when we inevitably split up, she was presented with a choice to take, or not to take a photo of Lucy. She took. And it was good because she didn’t use a flash. She has a low lux camera.

Photographs on the internet are better though. They are better illuminated. Lucy’s bones are arranged on a flat environmentally controlled case behnd bullet-proof glass. The room was dimly lit. A security guard stood right next to it.

I asked her about the security guard and she said she didn't know if he saw her take the photo but he didn’t say a thing.

MY plan was to pick up the exhibit brochure in the museum’s gift shop, scan that and post it here. That plan crashed and burned. There IS no exhibit brochure to buy. Just a bunch of over priced books.

So the heck with it. Here is the photograph that was taken today.

Compare it to the one I had in the other posting. It’s a lot more clearer and brighter.

And here is a photograph of the paleoanthropologists’ idea of how she must have appeared in the flesh.

They also had a display of reproductions of Lucy’s bones, that represented about 40% of her total skeletal frame, placed the way they were in 3-D space, with wires holding them in place. That makes more sense than seeing her flattened in 2-D. But do I have a photo of that?


It’s a good exhibit overall, and has much more than Lucy. Scattered about the rooms in cases are ancient pottery from the 1st and 2nd century, some old qu’rans, some religious Christian relics, processional crucifixes mainly. I was struck by the prevalence of the equant crucifixes (like on the Swiss flag) as opposed to the Roman cross. This is much the same, I am told, as the crosses in the Coptic church. There were several movie displays that described ancient Abyssinia as well as 19th and 20th century Ethiopia. One thing that was emphasized over and over again, was that Emperor Haile Selassie, force out in 1974, was lineally descended from the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

Haile Selassie was the last of a 2000 year plus dynasty.

They say.

Yes, I came away with a lot of gossip, speculation, and rumor which is epidemic in Abyssinia’s history.

Getting back to the anthropology, what I think they really did a good job on was tying global climate changes – as a result of the opening, closing, and partitioning of oceanic basins – with the evolution of homonoids. They drove home the point that homonoid evolution was driven by climatic change.

Another thing that struck me was what a lucky find Lucy is. Donald Johanson describes his discovery in a short film. He was going back to a site to take measurements at a locality where a “nearly perfect pig skull” had been collected earlier. As he walked up the wash, he said, he looked over his shoulder to the right and saw something glint in the sun. It was Lucy’s elbow. That day they found many more pieces strewn up a hill and eventually located the sandstone layer that encased her skeleton. Had he not found her on that day, the next torrential rainstorm would have taken those specimens and washed them over a cliff, destroying them forever.

Getting me back to the difference between hominid and homonoid. A hominid is a descendent from primates who has a genus name “Homo”. Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo sapiens are homonids. Homonoids are the whole group that separated from a common ancestor that we have with chimpanzees. Australopithecus afarensis, of which Lucy is a specimen, is a homonoid. But she is not a hominid.

Class dismissed.

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