After 3.2 million years in East Africa, one of the world's most famous sets of fossils was quietly flown out of Ethiopia for a tour of the US that some experts say is a dangerous gamble with an irreplaceable relic.
Although the fossil known as Lucy was expected to leave the Ethiopian Natural History Museum this month, some in the nation's capital were surprised the departure took place under cover of darkness with no fanfare on Sunday.
"This is a national treasure," said Kine Arega, a 29-year-old attorney in Addis Ababa. "How come the public has no inkling about this? It's amazing that we didn't even get to say goodbye."
Paleontologist Berhane Assaw said he worked late on Sunday at the museum only to arrive on Monday morning to find that the fossil and key staff members had left for Texas.
The departure "should have been made public," he said.
Ethiopia's culture minister, Mahamouda Ahmed Gaas, declined to comment.
The US' Smithsonian Institution has objected to the six-year tour because museum experts do not believe the fragile remains should travel. Even in Ethiopia, the public has only seen the real Lucy remains twice. The Lucy exhibition at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum is a replica and the real remains are usually locked in a vault to protect them.
The curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where Lucy will be on display from Aug. 31 to April 20, said he shared the Smithsonian's concern over ensuring the security of artifacts on display. But he said this should not preclude them from traveling.
"We will put Lucy on display with the utmost care just as we have put other fragile artifacts on display, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were returned to Israel in the same condition they came to our museum," Dirk Van Tuerenhout said.
Laura Holtman, a spokeswoman for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, said the museum has had discussions about hosting the exhibit but has not decided whether to do so.
She said the exhibit would require more work to set up than most traveling exhibits and officials are also considering the ethical issues that have been raised about exhibiting Lucy.
"We haven't ruled it out," Holtman said.
"Certainly, it's an amazing opportunity," she said.
If the museum does decide to host it, the exhibit wouldn't come until 2009. Next year's special exhibition schedule is already set, Holtman said.
At The Field Museum in Chicago, Lucy's fossilized remains are tentatively slated to be exhibited from approximately November 2009 through early April 2010, spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said.
However, details have yet to be finalized, and no contract has been signed, she said.
Museum officials have refused to say how much they had insured Lucy for or how much the Ethiopian government was being paid.
Ethiopian government officials have said they will use the money raised from Lucy's display to improve museums and build new ones.
The fossilized partial skeleton of an adult of an ape-man species was discovered in 1974 in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia.
Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between about 4 million and 3 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.