Sometimes The Past Looks Back

Kage Baker liked museums.  What she liked, though, was art and cultural artifacts – nothing messy. She often said, regretfully, that she’d have loved to study archeology except that bones (except cardboard ones at Halloween) made her queasy …

Me, I like bones. Paleo-anthropology fascinates me. Kage was good about coming with me, but Kimberly actually shares my interest. So we went to the Bowers Museum, a gorgeous little private museum in Santa Ana, this Saturday. Visit it you can, Dear Readers, because it’s really keen. And the exhibit we went to see will be through April 29th ..

We went to see Lucy. Even if you’re not into paleo-anthropology, you might know that name. She is the 4 million year old hominid found in Ethiopia by Tim White in 1974, an amazingly nearly complete skeleton of a tiny little lady who was just about certainly one of the people on the long road to us. She walked erect, she had a pelvis shaped like ours, her face was much less like a chimpanzee (our mutual ancient cousins) and much more like one of us with an overbite. She had long clever hands and feet designed to run, not cling to branches. And in her little, rounded skull was the best brain yet evolved on the planet.

This was not a reproduction. It was really her, the iconic little bones laid out in the pattern I know from so many pored-over photographs. I wept, looking at her. So tiny! So fragile! So new in the world, and so full of potential! I could have held her bundled limbs like twigs in one hand, cupped her skull fragments in my palm like an opened eggshell. Her ribs were as delicate as silver wire, and not much bigger.

There are many reconstructions of her, of course. The one in this exhibit is one of the newest interpretations, and stared up at us gawking giants with human eyes in a gently prognathous – but not muzzled – face. The lips over her very human teeth suggested a smile. She was poised on her new-minted feet as if about to run, or dance.

I have to admit here, Dear Readers, that I am, yes, one of those folks who sits and goes through family photos and cries nostalgically over baby pictures. My grandfather in a sailor suit, my dad with muscles and all his hair – unknown cousins in their baptismal gowns. I am a completely soggy, Hallmark commercial sort of person. It’s just that I feel the same way about ancient hominids as I do about pictures of my Great-Grandmother Kate in her black Victorian satin. Family! something in my heart cries.

I wasn’t the only one, either. There were lots of people there, and the sort of reverential quiet you find at a funeral viewing. The docent had nothing to do, because there was at least one person in every group who was narrating Lucy’s story to their companions. Those folk knew what they had come to see. And I wasn’t the only one who wiped wet eyes.

There were also splendid time lines, instructive film clips, tons of good books to be had, keen T-shirts, and lovely stone tools from Lucy’s people, Australopithicus afarensis – beautiful little obsidian blades, and chert hand axes that would have been too small even for my hands. And other wonders …

At one point I looked up from Lucy’s lovely bones into the smiling eyes of a man standing beside me. He had a wide, pleasant face, with an enormous nose and no chin; I’m afraid I stared, and he grinned with extraordinarily big teeth. His forehead had a nice slope, but when he turned, his skull was both slightly elongated and flat, with a bulge at the back. I stood there trying to figure out a polite way to get Kim’s attention and point him out to her, and he grinned at me again over his shoulder as he turned away.

While I was gathering my scattered wits, a woman bumped into me. I looked down – I’m only 5’4″, but she barely came to my shoulder. Delicately Malaysian features, not a dwarf, big eyes and buck teeth and hair like black silk … she smiled at me, too, before she moved away.

So, who else came on Saturday to see little Madame Lucy? Homo neandertalis, Homo floresiensis? Just folks who looked a hell of a lot like them? The gentleman with the heroic nose seemed to know what he looked like, and was certainly amused by it. The little lady was working hard to hit 4 feet tall even in chic little heels, but she was most certainly a totally civilized person. She had a 3-figure handbag!

Were they Operatives? It was appropriate on more than one level that Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was playing softly in that exhibit hall all the while.

Man, it couldn’t have been weirder – or better – if Kage had been with me.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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2 Responses to Sometimes The Past Looks Back

  1. Becky says:

    Operatives in the audience?!? Hmmmm… now I wish I’d gone to the exhibit even more! Actually, I’m very envious you’ve seen Lucy.


  2. Kate says:

    They were very interesting-looking people; most peculiar. As for seeing Lucy – it was moving and exciting and humbling, all at once. Such a tiny thing to have been saved from the destruction of the deep past – and so important to us.


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