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Chasing Dubois's Ghost

Pat Shipman

I first went to Java in October of 1998, chasing the ghost of Eugene Dubois. Dubois was the Dutch physician and anatomist who found the missing link there in 1891. He was a genius, a risk taker, one of the most stubborn men in the history of anthropology and the subject of my next book.

To Dubois, "missing link" meant the extinct form linking human beings with apes. Because few fossil hominids were known, scientists looked to comparative anatomy and embryology for evidence of human evolution. Dubois was almost alone in believing that the best proof would come from fossils. In 1887, he abruptly resigned his anatomy job at the University of Amsterdam and applied for a government grant to find the missing link. He received instead advice not to place so much stock in "that crazy book of Darwin's." His parents and colleagues condemned his plan as risky, dangerous and sure to be ruinous.

Figure 1. In JavaClick to Enlarge Image

Dubois ignored their advice, preferring his own ironclad logic. One: Man evolved from apelike ancestors, so the place to find these ancestors was in the tropics of Africa and Asia inhabited by apes today. Two: One of the few known fossil apes, a putative chimpanzee ancestor, was discovered in Asia, in the Siwalik Hills of India. Three: The other mammals found with the Siwalik ape were also known from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a relatively easy place for Dubois to work. Four: One island, Sumatra, was full of limestone caves—where fossils were usually found in Europe—that had never been systematically explored.

The Dutch East Indies were a perfect place to find the missing link and a perfect place for failure. Dubois had support neither for his expedition nor for his family. Europeans in the Indies died of tropical diseases at horrific rates. The landscape was blanketed in dense tropical vegetation, cloaked in unbearably hot and humid weather and very steeply sloped in the volcanic regions where the caves were. Undaunted, Dubois enlisted for eight years as a military surgeon with the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, packed up his wife and infant daughter and sailed to Sumatra. He was not yet 30 years old.

Soon after disembarking from the steamer at Padang, Dubois began fossil hunting, finding thousands of mammalian fossils but no missing link. He also published his theory on the location of the missing link, observing pointedly that someone would beat the Dutch to it if research funds were not forthcoming. He was promptly relieved of medical duties and seconded to the Ministry of Education, Religion and Industry to search for fossils. In 1890, he shifted operations to Java and, brilliantly, also shifted his searching strategy. Instead of the cave sites that yielded so much in Europe, Dubois followed his unsupported intuition that open-air sites along the banks and point bars of the big, sluggish rivers might prove profitable.

In September of 1891, on a bend in the Bengawan Solo River near Trinil, Dubois's men excavated the tooth of a higher primate. The very next month, they found a beautiful skullcap, fossilized to a rich chocolate-brown color. The skullcap was a true treasure, boasting the prominent brow-ridges of an ape and the capacious braincase of a human being. In May of 1892 a dense, chocolate-colored left femur was excavated, unmistakably the thigh bone of a creature that walked bipedally. Five years, two weeks and three days after setting foot in the Indies, Eugene Dubois named his missing link Pithecanthropus erectus (it is now known as Homo erectus), using the generic name for the hypothetical ape-man suggested by Ernst Haeckel and adding erectus to emphasize its evident adaptation for upright walking.

Success and Skepticism

Further excavation yielded no more remains of P.e., as he nicknamed it, but these three bones were a splendid confirmation of a hypothesis most thought foolish if not actually lunatic. That he nearly died several times over of fever, tiger and wild boar attacks, cave-ins and other adventures was unimportant.

Dubois decided to write a monograph, despite his limited scientific library, his scanty comparative collection of bones and a total lack of prototype for the sort of monograph he was trying to write. Before Dubois, no one had ever compared a fossil hominid to apes and to humans. Previous studies attempted to align the fossil with a human race. He created a new, transitional position for Pithecanthropus, halfway between apes and humans. Dubois completed his monograph in 1894, mailed it off to announce his find to the scientists of Europe and sailed home in 1895.

Instead of well-deserved accolades, Dubois was greeted with cruel skepticism. Academics who stayed comfortably in Europe while Dubois searched for fossils doubted his three specimens came from one individual and disagreed with his interpretations. From 1895 to 1900, Dubois defended his missing link with every weapon at his disposal. He barraged his critics with facts, geological diagrams, measurements and analyses. He thrust his fossils under their noses, making the missing link such a hot topic that more than 80 articles were written about Pithecanthropus before the end of the century. Then for more than 20 years, he turned his attention to other studies and refused to let anyone study P.e. Dubois always found it too inconvenient to interrupt his own work to show others the fossils, especially as this might open the door to still more controversy. He sequestered his fossils successfully for years, until international complaints reached the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, which suggested pointedly that one employed by the government as the curator of the Dubois Collection was obliged to make his fossil material accessible to fellow scientists. While he waited decades for vindication, Dubois single-handedly shaped the direction of research in paleoanthropology.

Java was the place that made Dubois who he was, and I knew I had to see it. Visiting Dubois's site, Trinil, was a revelation. My guide was apologetic because we arrived after the site museum had closed, but I didn't care. I walked happily through the huge wrought-iron gates and wandered into the small museum garden. "I did not come to see the museum. I came to see the place of Dubois," I explained. Then I spotted the monument Dubois erected in 1893 when he finished his work at Trinil. Seeing it in this foreign place was like encountering an old friend. I rushed over to place my hand on it. "You see, Anto?" I asked the guide. "This is it. This is why I came to Java."

On the monument is a bronze plaque.

Click to Enlarge Image

"P.e." is Pithecanthropus erectus; the numbers and arrow point to the find spot 175 meters east-northeast; the dates are the years of excavation.

"Anna Abortus"

The last, probably hopeless task on my agenda was to find the old European graveyard in Tulungagung so I could follow up on an enigmatic entry in Dubois's daily diary on August 30, 1893. "Anna abortus," he wrote in pencil, and then crossed the words out with thick, dark lines that nearly tore the page. Later, gently, he rewrote "Anna abortus." Anna was his wife, and they returned home to Holland with three children, Eugenie, Jean and Victor. This fourth child is mentioned neither in colonial archives nor in the remaining family letters. I wanted very much to find the grave.

Cemeteries in Java are not orderly, with neat rows of graves separated by grassy pathways. Graves are arranged helter-skelter, new ones squeezed in between the old at every sort of angle. Nearly all the graves in this cemetery appeared to be Javanese, among them many small children's graves.

Nevertheless, I finally saw what I was looking for, a tiny patch of ground surrounded by the old, crumbling double row of bricks. Such a small space, less than a foot square, to contain someone's heartache: a little headstone, no capstone, no inscription. There was no real proof that this was her grave, but I knew with a startling certainty that little Anna Jeanette Dubois was buried here. I had not considered her name—Anna after her mother, Jeanette after her grandfather—or sex before, but I knew them now, intuitively. Here, her mother had railed and wept at the cruelty of the tropics; here, her father had laid his fourth child to rest. Here, they left her behind, all alone, when they returned to Europe. It broke my heart.

Lost Time

My guide was startled by my sadness and later asked about the incident. He could not understand how I could feel "so sharp about someone dead 100 years." He explained that the Javanese mourn their dead mothers, fathers and grandparents, but not "someone you never see." Nothing I said about my emotional connection to this long-dead man whose words and work I had studied so closely seemed to resonate with him. I tried a metaphor, saying that I was walking in Dubois’s footsteps, chasing his ghost, but this seemed equally incomprehensible. Then I remembered a passage in my phrasebook.

Verbs in Indonesian are not conjugated. That is, unlike European languages, the form of the verb does not change according to the tense or the person. So, for example, mereka pergi can mean "they go", "they will go", "they were going", "they went", or "they have gone." . . . Usually the context in which you hear the verb will make it clear whether the speaker is referring to the past, present or future.

In Bahasa Indonesian, the past is implied, not demarcated. The linguistic difference reflects a perceived difference in the nature of time. Western time is a linear, unidirectional narrative; Javan time is not. This revelation confused me as profoundly as my search for the concrete remnants of history had confused many Indonesians on my journey.

If there is no past tense, is there no past? The past is the stuff of my work as a paleoanthropologist and historian of science. Thinking about a culture that functions without a past made my eyes cross. What did this mean, I wondered, for Dubois, searching for evidence of the deep past in a land where the past exists only by implication?

Then I recalled a moment of epiphany at the monument Dubois erected to mark the spot where he discovered the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus. I had looked up and seen a man up to his knees in river water, fishing, and standing on the old excavation.

I felt as if I had been slapped, so sudden was my insight. Dubois risked everything, found the missing link, erected a plinth to mark the spot for all time, and he didn't put his own name on it. During his lifetime, Dubois was called hard, stubborn and impossibly demanding by his colleagues; his wife left him; even a former student called him a "psychical monster." But now I saw the truth: Everything he did was about P.e., not about himself. What was not there was more important than what was.

Much later, I learned that the closest equivalent for "history" in Bahasa Indonesian is "a long way away in time." It was the perfect phrase, a long way away in time: That was where I had been. Sometimes I was so close to Dubois that we shared experiences. Yet those who guided me to him neither knew where I wanted to go nor recognized the place when we arrived.

I learned some simple and powerful lessons in Java. Things are not always as they seem. The past may be indistinguishable from the present. Context is everything: geological context, intellectual context, linguistic context, cultural context. In Java, it seems as if the physical laws of time and space are warped into a Möbius strip. One can never hope to see all that is there, and sometimes what is missing is most important of all.

© Pat Shipman



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