With Lucy, Obama Sees New Meaning in Family Visit to Africa

The president was given an audience with the famous fossil.

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Obama touches a bone fragment of “Lucy,” who was estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago, alongside Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (right) and Zeresenay Alemseged (second left), head of the California Academy of Sciences, prior to a State Dinner at the National Palace in Addis Ababa on July 27.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

“Amazing,” President Barack Obama remarked, and it was hard to disagree.

Before him on a table in Ethiopia’s National Palace, neat, in open wood boxes, lay “Lucy,” aka AL-288-1, the 40-percent complete remains of a female human ancestor who lived 3.2 millions years ago, and, who at the time of her discovery in Ethiopia in 1974 by an American, represented the most complete, ancient tie to humankind.

“Every single person here, 7 billion people, including Donald Trump, came down through the chain,” Zeresenay Alemseged, senior curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and Obama’s tour guide, told the president. Dinkeresh, as she is known to Ethiopians, is an Australopithecus afarensis, which came before Homo sapiens. Alemseged even let Obama touch one of Lucy’s bones, a thoracic vertebrae.

Obama had arranged his two-country visit to Africa, which began Friday and ends Tuesday, largely to make good on his promise to get to Kenya, his late father’s homeland, before the end of his presidency.

Secret Service concerns about his security and his time constraints prevented Obama from visiting his family’s village of Kogelo and, other than a private dinner with relatives in Nairobi, made one-on-one contact with everyday Kenyans nearly impossible.

In a news conference Monday with the Ethiopian prime minister at the same palace hours before he met Lucy, Obama's attention was tugged away from Africa, back to domestic politics. At one point, he ripped into Trump and another Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, for tactics he said were taking American politics to new lows.

But the experience of stroking an ancient bone in this cradle of civilization seemed to make up at least a bit for Obama’s apparent frustration with his lack of personal contact on the Africa trip, and the petty dramas that dog him back home. 

President Barack Obama touches a bone fragment of “Lucy,” who was estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago, alongside Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (right) and Zeresenay Alemseged (second left) of the California Academy of Sciences, prior to a State Dinner at the National Palace in Addis Ababa on July 27.
President Barack Obama touches a bone fragment of “Lucy,” who was estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago, alongside Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (right) and Zeresenay Alemseged (second left) of the California Academy of Sciences, prior to a State Dinner at the National Palace in Addis Ababa on July 27.
Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

“I just met Lucy,” Obama told the assembled guests later in the evening at the State Dinner in his honor at the palace. Seeing those remains, he said, “We are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain. And as one of the professors who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact. We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.” 

Older remains than Lucy’s have since been identified, including two Obama also got to see on Monday night just before the dinner—Selam, the remains of a 3.3 million-year-old child, and Ardi, those of a 4.5 million-year-old adult.

Also on Bloomberg Politics: President Obama's Africa Trip in Photos

Lucy may be the most famous. She usually lives at the National Museum of Ethiopia and is rarely taken off campus. Yonas Desta Tsegaye, the museum’s director general, was also on hand at the palace along with Berhane Asfaw, a scientist associated with Ardi’s discovery.

Lucy arrived at the palace in her own motorcade, the scientists said, so that no one could be sure which car she was traveling in. The protection she gets, they said, is much like that of a head of state. The scientists also said they couldn’t recall another time when Lucy had been displayed uncovered and that most guests don’t get to touch her. With Obama, they made an exception, Alemseged said. “Extraordinary people have extraordinary access.”

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