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Chasing Dubois's Ghost

Pat Shipman

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.

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