Another fossil skeleton set to hit the road

Here's some news from Ann Gibbons in Science:

The late F. Clark Howell of the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that Lucy's journey would "start an avalanche" of exhibits of original hominid fossils. Last week, Howell's remark began to seem prescient: Officials at the National Museums of Kenya announced government approval for their plans to send Nariokotome Boy, the partial skeleton of a 12-year-old, to The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

Gibbons writes that they haven't yet hammered out an agreement with dates, and includes disapproving quotes from discoverers Richard Leakey and Alan Walker.

I find it interesting how these publicity tours fetishize the skeleton. First, there was that Neandertal "skeleton" at the American Museum of Natural History, then Lucy, and now this. I can understand people are interested in seeing the "most complete" this and that, but really fragments are just as interesting if you contextualize them well. More important, they constitute our evidence of variation, something that will never come from the more complete skeletons.

Of course, showing complete skeletons is a staple of dinosaur exhibits, where the bones loom over the viewers. That gives visual information about size that a single bone doesn't do. Lucy has that quality -- you have to stand next to the skeleton to really understand how small she was. The National Geographic headquarters used to have a display case with Lucy and the Nariokotome boy right next to each other. That's a great idea, because you can immediately see the huge contrast in size between the two. Except, well, they had cut a hole in the floor and stuck the boy's legs through it. I suppose they thought it looked better with the two fossils at the same height!

The human evolution room at the Field Museum is really good, by the way. When we were there this spring, a high school class was crowding the place, busily scribbling down details about the casts for a questionnaire.


Gibbons A. 2007. Nariokotome Boy to go on the road despite protests. Science 318:32. doi:10.1126/science.318.5847.32