By Mogus Degoyae Mochena
While the uproar against the ‘Lucy’ tour of North America is still in the air, I felt I should share my feelings and thoughts I have been harboring about the name – Lucy – for quite some time.
In 1967, the Beetles, one of the greatest rock bands in history, had a hit song – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Here are the words of the song that have nothing to do with anthropology, or the Hadar region of Afar, or the Ethiopian culture at large:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmellow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you're gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties,
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstyle,
The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes.
Apparently the paleo-anthropologist Donald Johanson and colleagues, who discovered, by all accounts, the greatest skeletal remains of anthropology, a hommind that is 3.18 million years old, had a good reason to celebrate; to party in a tent after they had succeeded in assembling the fossil pieces into a skeletal form. Who wouldn’t after such a historic scientific discovery!! So the story goes that the Beetles’ song ‘Lucy in the sky with Diamonds’ was playing as they were celebrating. Voila! They were feeling very Beetles-happy. And they named the skeleton of the three and a half feet female Lucy.
One can’t help but feel awed when watching the video1 footage of the discovery of ‘Lucy’ at Hadar, as Johanson’s four wheel drive descends into the scorching, desolate valley and as Johansen describes how he first came across a couple of fossils that looked suspiciously different, went back to US to study them, and came back to Hadar with his graduate student and was scouring the grounds for more fossils. It always amazes me to observe archeologists or anthropologists, meticulously and methodically sifting through dirt and debris with uttermost care, peeling away at layers after layers with their tiny brushes and gadgets, or wandering some remote, inhospitable place in search of some fossils millions of years old. Such is a scholarly pursuit of highest caliber to uncover the past or link us to our ancestors. Johansen’s work truly falls in such a category and is one of those singular finds that renders meaning to the tireless efforts of scientists engrossed in the quest for knowledge. Nonetheless, the naming of this great find leaves much to be desired. I am not an anthropologist, but I feel there must be a better naming procedure than the trivial, nonchalant manner in which this was done.
In addition, there is the issue of cultural insensitivity. Unfortunately, this naming reminds me of the Hollywood movie, the African Queen of 1951, although the ‘Lucy’ case is somewhat the reverse. Supposedly, the African Queen is considered one of the classic adventure movies of Hollywood. If one believes at first blush what the name suggests, one would go into a movie theatre expecting to watch an African queen who is African. Surprise! The African Queen is none other than Katherine Hepburn, the great, brunette white actress. And Hepburn is no African remotely, and yet the movie producers had to whiten their movie with white audience in mind – a complete disregard for a true African image even if it is an artistic work. The audacity of Westerners anointing a non-African a queen, bestowing such an honor to someone who is not African is a supercilious act of cultural insensitivity.
Scientists have a standard way of doing their scientific work. If they don’t follow the norm, they are ostracized. The scientific aspect of ‘Lucy’s’ discovery is superb and the professionalism is very inspiring. It is in the cultural aspect that Johanson fails miserably. It seems Johanson was bitten by the Hollywood bug of cultural insensitivity when he gave the name ‘Lucy’. It is ironic that such a world - renowned physical anthropologist could benefit from a lesson or two from the likes of Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist. And Ethiopians, for they part, must demand a remedy for the transgression - an Ethiopian name!!