The Day I Met “Lucy” "Lucy" is a skeleton of a woman who lived 3.2 million years ago. She was an early human. She walked

WASHINGTON – A few days ago, while in Addis Ababa, I was advised to visit the National Museum of Ethiopia. And so I did. I thought that at the Museum I would be able to see interesting relics of Ethiopia’s past. This is after all a country with a long history; and the only country in Africa that managed to escape colonization. Except for a few years of Italian domination, on account of Mussolini’s silly idea of creating an empire for Fascist Italy, (this happened in 1936), Ethiopia has always been independent.

Independent Ethiopia

Indeed, right outside the Museum, there is a symbol of this independence. It is a cannon that was used by the Ethiopian army during the battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896). In this battle the Ethiopians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Italians (this was years before Mussolini’s successful invasion) who were trying to conquer them. To this day the Ethiopians celebrate the anniversary of this battle as a reminder of their ability to defeat European invaders and stay independent.

But while the National Museum has many artifacts of the old Empire and much more about Ethiopian society, arts and long religious history, much to my surprise, it also has an entire floor dedicated to mankind’s early beginnings.

Mankind’s beginnings

And this is the exhibit that truly captivated me. All of a sudden, we are brought into another world. This is the mysterious world that saw a new being develop from other primates. A being related to apes that had however acquired an erect position. This being was walking.


And there she is: “Lucy”. There she is. The size and shape of “Lucy”‘s femor and pelvis are a clear indication that she was a female who walked. Yes, she walked, just like we do. And I can look at her reconstructed skeleton, with some of her bones. There she is: 3.2 million years old. “Lucy”. Our ancestor.

Yes, Africa is where we all come from. Africa is the birthplace of human kind. And “Lucy” is the oldest ancestor we know of who was walking, just like we do.

Surely there must be many others that have yet to be discovered. But we do know about “Lucy”. And she is there. And I can look at her. Well, there is not much to see. Only a few bones. But this is more than enough.

We all come from the same place

Contemplating this exhibit that includes prehistoric tools made of stone, and much more, I was moved. For millennia religious figures and moral philosophers –with not much success– have tried to teach us about treating other humans as brothers and sisters. But we do not get the message. The many superficial differences of race, language and beliefs overwhelm the fundamental truth that we all belong to the human race.

And yet when I looked at “Lucy” I realized with amazement that we all descend from her, and from her contemporaries. Yes, in an abstract way, we do know that humans first evolved in Africa, and that from Africa they spread around the world. But sadly this knowledge does not create a feeling of familiarity.

On the contrary, history shows that we humans most of the time fight one another. It is a lot easier to identify ourselves in what separates us from one another than to be inspired by what we may have in common.

And yet, when I saw “Lucy” for a moment I felt transported into a different dimension. The dimension of humankind’s slow and almost magic beginnings. This transcends all we know about wars, conflicts, cruelty, and violence.

From “Lucy” to us

This is all about the mysterious evolution that led to us. Just like “Lucy”, we walk. And later on we invented tools, overtime more and more sophisticated. And we think. We are capable of reflection, analysis, planning and abstract thinking. We can go back to our actions and make considerations about their meaning. We developed distinctions, and the concepts of good and evil.

Sadly, all this is part of a non linear process. We can do all these things. But we do not do them well. We are also prone to believe passionately in all sorts of wrongs ideas. We are prisoners of bias and prejudice. We hate and we resent. We dream of vengeance.

Anyway, none of this seems to matter when we have a chance to contemplate the physical evidence of our ancient beginnings as human race.

“Lucy” says hello

At the Museum’ entrance, along with a picture of her skeleton, here is “Lucy” talking to us: “Hi, I am Lucy (or Dinknesh in Ethiopian language). I am almost 3.2 million years old, but I am walking fully upright. Please meet my world-famous ancestors and descendents, all from Ethiopia”.  

The Beatles’s connection

Now, if you wonder where the name “Lucy” came from, here is the story. After Donald Johnson and Tom Gray on November 24, 1974 accidentally discovered these incredibly important bones in Hadar, Ethiopia, there was much celebration that evening. The Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” apparently was played over and over.

Nobody remembers who exactly came up with the name “Lucy” for the skeleton of our ancient ancestor. But there is this connection with The Beatles. And for me The Beatles are gentle modern minstrels. Their songs are mostly little stories about simple good things, and good feelings. In a way, it is fitting that “Lucy”‘s name comes from one of their songs.



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