When fossils traveled

2 minute read

On the subject of the "Lucy" exhibit, a 1984 article (links are to the Times Select archive, which is not free) recalls the problems that accompanied another transatlantic voyage of human fossils:

Rift over fossils from South Africa
A cultural and political battle has erupted over the inclusion of fossils from South Africa in a major exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.
A bill introduced in the City Council last week, and supported by a statewide coalition opposed to the racial policies of South Africa, calls for the cutting off of the city's $7 million annual support to the museum if it does not remove the South African fossils from the exhibition. Several members of the council have asked that the museum formally denounce apartheid - both in a public statement and in an addendum to the program for the ''Ancestors'' exhibition.
Leaders of the museum have refused to do so, saying that the exhibition, by showing a common ancestry for all humans, is the strongest argument against apartheid. And both Mayor Koch and Bess Myerson, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, have said that while they abhor the racial policies of South Africa they oppose any censorship of the museum and the exhibition.

"Ancestors" showed nearly 50 human fossils, the only time these have ever been seen together in one place, and was accompanied by a large conference of scientists from around the world. Another article by Walter Sullivan in the April 5, 1984 Times recounted the scene at the meeting:

Never has there been such an assembly. There was the skull of a Taung child who lived in South Africa 2.25 million years ago. Next to it were specimens of Tautavel Man, who inhabited the south of France 450,000 years ago. Across the room, and estimated to be 600,000 [sic] years old, was the original Neanderthal skull, found in 1856 in the valley of Germany's Neander River.
''Casts cannot compare with seeing the real thing,'' Dr. Tobias said. ''We've never had this chance before - extraordinary!''

There were other concerns besides apartheid. For instance:

The representation of human forebears at the meeting is not complete in other respects. Contemporary Australian aborigines objected to plans for putting fossils of their remote ancestors on display in New York. Nor was the British Museum willing to part with any of its specimens, apparently because of fear that some countries that say the specimens belong to them, such as Zimbabwe, would initiate legal action to get them back.

On the subject of comparing "Lucy" and the Dead Sea Scrolls, similar comparisons were already being made in 1984:

Mayor Koch added: ''Fossils have no nationality. They may be possessed by someone for a time, but human fossils belong to no one. They are the holy relics of humanity and it is New York City's privilege and right, as a center of intellectual and artistic freedom, to host this exhibition.''

The Museum board later changed its position on the apartheid statement, as reported in a later article. Plus ça change...