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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.

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