When I first learned of her, I couldn’t have been any older than seven years old. The book was part of an encyclopedia of science for young people. I forget what technical question sparked this gift from my parents, but there was a set of narrow books from A to Z and there were the extra, “bonus” books that truly fascinated me. Fish, Mammals, Birds… and Primates.
Somewhere in the lucid text and glossy photos there it was: an evolutionary tree showing the relationship between man and ape. In the pages around this chart I found and was enchanted by her story. The discovery of a few scattered bones fossilized in an African dessert valley. Their amazing scientific significance and the astounding depths of time my young mind now had to comprehend. My first lesson on evolution.
This wasn’t Eve. This was Lucy.
I had seen my family tree, with my name (appropriately, it seemed to me) at the apex of a branching sprawl of other names, some so old they belonged to people that died before I was even born, but still recognizably a part of myself. So I knew what I was looking at when I found this particular picture and poured over it, lying on my stomach on the living room floor. I was related to gorillas and chimpanzees? I was a part of a tree with roots going back more years than I could in any way comprehend? I came from beings with names Mom and Dad couldn’t even pronounce? I was confused.
I had already asked Mom about the dinosaurs. If God had created all the animals and then us in six days, and put us in Eden to live until we were foolish enough to get ourselves kicked out, well, how did dinosaurs fit in? How could they possibly have existed thousands of years before people (in spite of what the Flintstones would have you believe) the way my books said? This was science, but what about Genesis?
Mom put forward the theory that God created fossils to test our faith in His Word. I pondered this, but even then it didn’t sit well with me. My book spoke of “missing link” hoaxes since the days of Darwin, and the idea of God basically perpetrating the perfect hoax bothered me. No doubt He could if He wanted. He is all-powerful. I do think that this dichotomy of science and religion is a test, just nothing so simplistic. But dinosaurs were a mental exercise to me. Lucy was more personal. She made me question not just how God works, but what He might intend for me. I came up with my own theories and feelings, and I’ve worked on them all my life as I learn more from without and within about my world and myself. For me, God is still wondrous and mysterious and no matter how He created the earth, I feel that greatness in my heart. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me as a rational and analytical person. Without limiting God’s power, without disputing the veracity of His Word in the Bible, and without discounting powerfully compelling scientific evidence, account for the universe. Ready, set, go.
And in my mother’s defense, she continued to buy me dinosaur books.
Ever since I first read about her, then, Lucy has had this incredible impact on me. Meeting her and learning of her connection with me began a personal spiritual and mental dialogue that has strengthened my faith even as it has challenged the views that I accepted freely in my childhood. When I learned that she would be coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I was floored. I’ve seen pictures of her bones and artists’ renderings of her face, but I never thought I’d get the chance to see her remains myself, in person. This was an opportunity I just couldn’t miss.
I went to visit Lucy yesterday. In Ethiopia, her home, she’s known as Dinkenesh, which means, according to one of the educational videos, “Thou art beautiful,” or to another, “You are wonderful.” Either is perfectly appropriate.
She is wonderful. I wanted to approach her with reverence. I read carefully all the accounts of the prehistory she was a part of and the history in which she was rediscovered. I watched the videos about her country today and the video in which her discoverer was interviewed. I took all of these things into my heart, along with the child’s awe undimmed from my first acquaintance with her. I still can’t remember all the long Latinate names, but I tried hard to focus on the story of human evolution that was beautifully displayed in a mural around the walls of the room she lies in. A mural flanked by mirrors.
Then I approached the case that holds her bones.
I was moved nearly to tears. Her bones are so small, her remains so scant. Barely an outline of a form, and yet these few fossilized bones mean so much. They had an enormous scientific impact at the time she was found. For me they have had an enormous personal impact for years.
Her tiny hip joint is like ours in miniature in features that show that she walked like we do. Her pelvis is marked, they say, in ways that show she might have borne a child. Her tiny toe bone, so small and so perfect. A vein of minerals glistens in a bone of her foot, and the marrow of her thigh is fossilized in darker stone than the surrounding bone. Splinters at the end of her humerus, even in stone, make her arm look so fragile, so delicate, like a child’s bones, and this made her more real to me than I can really describe. She has gone from being an image in my head to being someone I feel like I know. Someone I’ve had the privilege to meet.
She makes me question my own place, not only in my world today, but in evolutionary history/God’s plan. We aren’t descendent from Lucy per se, but perhaps from a contemporary. This makes me wonder, if gorillas and chimps aren’t driven to extinction or to the brink, where their genetic pool no longer has enough depth, what might they evolve into alongside ourselves? Yes, I’ve seen Planet of the Apes, but I’m serious. What could they become? What could we become? How strange might we look to someone so distant from us as we are from Lucy? (Supposing, of course, that anyone was around that far into the future, which is, as it was when I was seven, more than I can really comprehend.)
I hope we are as beautiful, as meaningful, as wonderful to them as she is to me.