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Indonesia Inspires Paleoanthropology

In 1890, Eugene Dubois, a Dutch medical doctor, traveled to Indonesia in search of human ancestors. In 1891, he discovered Homo erectus fossils and made hominid hunting a new profession. Asia soon became a top destination for paleoanthropologists.

Dubois discovered Java Man, an early human fossil on the island of Java. The fossil is estimated at 700,000 to 1,000,000 years old. At the time of its discovery, it was the oldest hominid fossils ever found. It remains the defining specimen for Homo erectus.

Java Man UNESCO World heritage site

Dubois traveled to Southeast Asia with the hope of finding an ancestor of modern man. After searching for fossils on the island of Sumatra, he moved to Java in 1890. With the help of two army sergeants and a number of convict laborers, he began work in August 1891 along the Solo River at Trinil. He first discovered a skullcap and then a femur. Dubois argued that he had found a missing link in the evolution between apes and humans.

Java man was characterized by a moderate cranial capacity, a flat skull with little forehead, a crest along the top of the head for attachment of powerful jaw muscles, very thick skull bones, heavy brows, and a massive jaw with no chin. The teeth are essentially human though with some apelike features, such as large, partly overlapping canines. Thighbones show that Java man walked fully erect, like modern man, and attained a height of about 170 cm (5 feet 8 inches).

Java Man likely occupied the Indonesian island from about one million to 500,000 years ago. However, radiometric dates obtained for volcanic minerals at Sangiran indicate that some fossils may be substantially older, perhaps approaching 1.5 million to 1.8 million years in age.

The fossil stirred plenty of controversy. Initially, few accepted Java Man as a transitional form between apes and humans. Some dismissed the fossils as apes and others as modern humans. Some scientists thought that Java man just a small splinter of evolution unrelated to modern humans. Eventually, similarities between Java Man and Peking Man convinced Ernst Mayr to place both species in the family tree of human evolution. Other fossils found decades later in at Sangiran and Mojokerto are all older than those found by Dubois. These specimens also have been added to the same family tree.

In 1995, the site on Java was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Indonesia citing its cultural value as an important site for studying ancient man. Curators moved the fossils of Java Man to the Naturalis in the Netherlands, but enthusiasts can visit the Sangiran Early Man Site about 15 kilometers north of Surakarta (Solo), in Sragen, Central Java. The site covers about 5,600 hectares. The museum features several interesting displays, including ancient animals and tools. It also includes scientific information about the early evolution of man and archaeology.

Other Paleoanthropology Sites In Indonesia

Ngandong: Dutch researchers discovered more H. erectus fossils, representing 15 individuals, in Java in the 1930s near the village of Ngandong on Java’s Solo River. Until recently, paleoanthropologists thought the Ngandong bones represented a very recent H. erectus population. Thought to be perhaps as young as 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hominids could have been contemporaries of Neanderthals and modern humans living in Europe and West Asia. But more recent fieldwork and dating analyses suggest the Ngandong hominids lived much earlier, sometime between 143,000 and 546,000 years ago.

Mojokerto: In 1936, an assistant working with the Dutch Geological Survey unearthed a partial skullcap of a two- to three-year-old child in eastern Java. Team member Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleontologist, recognized the skull as belonging to an early hominid, H. erectus. Although the exact location, and therefore age, of the fossil has been questioned in recent years, scientists generally think the Mojokerto skull dates to about 1.8 million years ago. That makes it one of the oldest hominid bones ever found outside Africa.

Sangiran: Between 1937 and 1941, von Koenigswald found additional H. erectus fossils at the site of Sangiran in central Java. The finds included three partial skulls, partial jaws and dozens of isolated teeth. These fossils, dating to more than one million years ago, helped confirm the validity of the species status of H. erectus. Today, tourists can visit the fossil site, which is home to ongoing excavations as well as a museum.

Flores: Indonesia’s most recent hominid discovery was a big shocker. In 2004, a group of researchers from Indonesia and Australia announced they had found an unusual collection of fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores. The bones belonged to a small-brained hominid that stood less than four feet tall and weighed less than 70 pounds—yet some of the fossils were just 17,000 years old. The researchers decided the “Hobbit” belonged to a new species, Homo floresiensis. Once the species’ ancestor, perhaps H. erectus, arrived on the island, the hominid evolved to be smaller as an adaptation to living on a small island. Critics, however, say the Hobbit is actually a modern human with some kind of growth disorder.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people.

The country is comprised of more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country has more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn where to go, what do and what to say.

Language and Travel Guide to Indonesia

Learn where to go, what to do and what to say. Experience more of Indonesia than the average traveler by speaking Indonesian. Simple courtesies and greetings will make your trip more productive and rewarding. Our phonetic style makes it impossible to mispronounce important words. Order your hard copy. Indonesians will sparkle with delight when you speak just a few words in bahasa Indonesia. Watch our Indonesian tutorial.

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Author: Gary Chandler