September 21, 2006
The icon is the one on the left. It is the fossilised skull of a three-year-old girl who died about 3.3 million years ago in what is now Dikika in Ethiopia's Afar region. That makes her the oldest toddler ever discovered.
She was unveiled yesterday in a lecture theatre in the basement of the National Museum in Addis Ababa by proud paleontologist Zeresenay Alemseged (the one on the right) who led the team that found most of her skeleton about five years ago.
At the end of his presentation, he turned to the audience of journalists and academics and politicians and asked 'So what shall we name her'.
It seemed to be a genuine request. He hadn't decided and wanted us to make the historic decision there and then. He had a few pointers.
The name had to be as good and universally easy to say as Lucy – the name of what, until yesterday, was Ethiopia's most famous early human remain. (They both date from the same era, making them Australopithecus afarensis.) It had to be the name of a girl. It had to be Ethiopian. And he wanted it to express a sense of peace – earlier he had talked about how he had had to employ armed guards on the dig because of ongoing hostilities in Afar.
That didn't really leave us much to play with. 'Selam' (Amharic for peace) said one of the journalists. The Culture Minister made a quick argument for using the Afar word for peace instead. But after few more impromptu speeches from the floor, it was agreed that 'Selam' would mean peace to most Ethiopians without causing any offence.
So that was that. She was Selam – Ethiopia's latest claim to being the cradle of the human race. It was only then that Dr Zeresenay admitted that Selam was also his wife's name and he was relieved everyone had made the right choice.
He also unveiled an artists' impression of what Selam might have looked like – a sculpture commissioned by National Geographic which will be on the cover of its next issue. He asked us not to take photos of it to respect the magazine's scoop. I'll just say that most of the journalists and hardened academics forgot themselves when he pulled back the cover and a huge 'Ahhh' went round the room.
I caught ETV talk show host Tefera Gedamu taking pictures of the members of the international press pack at the beginning of the press conference. "It's the first positive story they've covered for years," he said.
Noone mentioned the odd fact that Ethiopia's international paleontological fame is based on a theory that its main church denies – that is the theory of evolution. And it is not only the Orthodox Christians. An international broadcaster who happened to be a Muslim explained a few months back how he had to suspend his disbelief whenever he wrote a story about Lucy and her contemporaries. "This evolution stuff is nonsense. But I write it because that is what the news desk wants."
Posted by aheavens at September 21, 2006 5:19 AM