Java Man

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Homo erectus erectus
Temporal range: Pleistocene
Java Man.jpg
A reconstruction of the skull of "Java Man" (1922)
Scientific classification
Species:H. erectus
Subspecies:H. e. erectus
Trinomial name
Homo erectus erectus

Pithecanthropus erectus

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"Pithecanthropus erectus" redirects here. For the song and album by that title, see Pithecanthropus Erectus (album).
"Pithecanthropus" redirects here. For Pithecanthropus rudolfensis, see Homo rudolfensis.
Homo erectus erectus
Temporal range: Pleistocene
Java Man.jpg
A reconstruction of the skull of "Java Man" (1922)
Scientific classification
Species:H. erectus
Subspecies:H. e. erectus
Trinomial name
Homo erectus erectus

Pithecanthropus erectus

Java Man (Homo erectus erectus) is the popular name given to early human fossils discovered on the island of Java (Indonesia) in 1891 and 1892. Led by Eugène Dubois, the excavation team uncovered a tooth, a skullcap, and a thighbone at Trinil on the banks of the Solo River in East Java. Arguing that the fossils represented the "missing link" between apes and humans, Dubois gave the species the scientific name Anthropopithecus erectus, then later renamed it Pithecanthropus erectus.

The fossil aroused much controversy. Less than ten years after 1891, almost eighty books or articles had been published on Dubois's finds.[1] Despite Dubois' argument, few accepted that Java Man was a transitional form between apes and humans. Some dismissed the fossils as apes and others as modern humans, whereas many scientists considered Java Man as a primitive side branch of evolution not related to modern humans at all. Dubois's claim in the 1930s that Pithecanthropus was built like a "giant gibbon" was not a retraction, but another attempt by Dubois to prove that it was the "missing link".

Eventually, similarities between Pithecanthropus erectus ("Java Man") and Sinanthropus pekinensis ("Peking Man") led Ernst Mayr to rename both Homo erectus in 1950, placing them directly in the human evolutionary tree. Because Java Man is the type specimen of H. erectus, it is sometimes given the name Homo erectus erectus. Other fossils belonging to that species were found in the first half of the twentieth century in Sangiran and Mojokerto, both in Java; older than those Dubois found, they are also considered part of the species Homo erectus.

Estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years old, at the time of their discovery the fossils of "Java Man" were the oldest hominin fossils ever found.


Charles Darwin had argued that humanity evolved in Africa, because this is where great apes like gorillas and chimpanzees lived. Though Darwin's claims have since been vindicated by the fossil record, he was proposing it without any fossil evidence. Other scientific authorities disagreed with him, like Charles Lyell, a geologist, and Alfred Russel Wallace, who had thought of the theory of evolution around the same time as Darwin. Because both Lyell and Wallace believed that humans were more closely related to gibbons and orangutans, they identified Southeast Asia as the cradle of humanity because this is where these great apes lived. Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois favored the latter theory, and sought to confirm it.[2]


In October 1887, Dubois abandoned his academic career and left for the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to look for the fossilized ancestor of modern man.[3] Having received no funding from the Dutch government for his eccentric endeavor – since no one at the time had ever found an early human fossil while looking for it – he joined the Dutch East Indies Army as a military surgeon.[4] Because of his work duties, only in July 1888 did he begin to excavate caves in Sumatra.[5] Having quickly found abundant fossils of large mammals, Dubois was relieved of his military duties (March 1889), and the colonial government assigned two engineers and fifty convicts to help him with his excavations.[6] After he failed to find the fossils he was looking for on Sumatra he moved on to Java in 1890.

Eugène Dubois's stratigraphic section of the site where he found "Java Man". The femur and skullcap appear at level D between a "lapilli stratum" (C) and a "conglomerate" (E).
The three main fossils of "Java Man" found in 1891–92: a skullcap, a molar, and a thighbone, each seen from two different angles.

Again assisted by convict laborers and two army sergeants, Dubois began searching along the Solo River near Trinil in August 1891.[7] His team soon excavated a molar and a skullcap. Dubois first gave them the name Anthropopithecus, or "man-ape", as the chimpanzee was known at the time. He chose this name because a similar tooth found in the Siwalik Hills in India in 1878 had been named Anthropopithecus, and because Dubois first assessed the cranium to have been about 700 cubic centimetres (43 cu in), closer to apes than to humans. In August 1892, Dubois's team found a long femur (thighbone) shaped like a human one, suggesting that its owner had stood upright. Believing that the three fossils belonged to a single individual, "probably a very aged female", Dubois renamed the specimen Anthropopithecus erectus.[8] Only in late 1892, when he determined that the cranium measured about 900 cubic centimetres (55 cu in), did Dubois consider that his specimen was a transitional form between apes and humans.[9] He thus renamed it Pithecanthropus erectus ("upright ape-man"), using a term that Ernst Haeckel had coined a few years earlier to refer to a supposed "missing link" between apes and humans.[10]

A second, more complete specimen was later discovered in Sangiran, Central Java, 18 km to the north of Solo. A skullcap of similar size to that found by Dubois was found by a team led by Berlin-born paleontologist G. H. R. von Koenigswald in 1936. Many more fossils of early humans were subsequently made at the Sangiran site,[11] although official reports remain critical of the site's poor presentation and interpretation.[12] Also in 1936, von Koenigswald discovered a juvenile skullcap known as the Mojokerto child.[13]

Similar discoveries[edit]

In 1927, Canadian Davidson Black identified two fossilized teeth he had found in Zhoukoudian near Beijing as belonging to an ancient human, and named his specimen Sinanthropus pekinensis, now better known as "Peking Man".[14] In December 1929, the first of several skullcaps was found on the same site, and it appeared similar to that of Java Man, though slightly larger.[15] Franz Weidenreich, who replaced Black in China after the latter's death in 1933, argued that Sinanthropus was also a transitional fossil between apes and humans, and was in fact so similar to Java's Pithecanthropus that they should both belong to the same group. Eugène Dubois categorically refused to entertain this possibility, dismissing Peking Man as a kind of Neanderthal, closer to humans than the Pithecanthropus.[16]

When Ralph von Koenigswald discovered the skullcap of the "Mojokerto child" in East Java in 1936, he considered it close to human and attempted to name it Pithecanthropus modjokertensis (after Dubois's specimen), but Dubois protested that Pithecanthropus was not a human but an "ape-man". Out of respect for Dubois, von Koenigswald renamed his specimen Homo modjokertensis ("Mojokerto Man"), but kept calling it Pithecanthropus in his own notes. Von Koenigswald's discovery of more similar fossils in Sangiran starting in 1937 convinced him that all these skulls belonged to early humans. Dubois again refused to acknowledge the similarity. Ralph von Koenigswald and Franz Weidenreich compared the fossils from Java and Zhoukoudian and concluded that Java Man and Peking Man were closely related. Dubois died in 1940, still refusing to recognize their conclusion.[17]

Based on Weidenreich's work and on his suggestion that Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus interbred, German biologist Ernst Mayr reclassified them both as being part of the same species: Homo erectus.[18] He proposed this conclusion in a paper he presented at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium in 1950.[19] A "revolution in taxonomy", his "single-species" approach to human evolution was quickly accepted.[18] It shaped paleoanthropology in the 1950s and lasted into the 1970s, when the African genus Australopithecus was added to the human evolutionary tree.[20]

Post-discovery analysis[edit]


Illustration of Java Man skull, with an ape-like jaw but a brain larger than apes'

Java Man was about 5 feet 8 inches (170 cm) tall and his thighbones show that he walked erect like modern humans. His skull was characterized by thick bones and a retreating forehead and no chin, as well as protruding browridges and a massive jaw. With 900 ccm, his cranial capacity was smaller than that of later H. erectus specimens. He had human teeth with large canines.[7]

Date of the fossils[edit]

Further information: Stratigraphy (archaeology)

The main fossil of Java Man, the skullcap cataloged as "Trinil 2", has been dated biostratigraphically, that is, by correlating it with a group of fossilized animals (a "faunal assemblage") found nearby on the same geological horizon, which is itself compared with assemblages from other layers and classified chronologically. Ralph von Koenigswald first assigned Java Man to the Trinil Fauna, a faunal assemblage that he composed from several Javanese sites.[21] By his reckoning, the skullcap was about 700,000 years old, thus dating from the beginning of the Middle Pleistocene.[22]

Though this view is still widely accepted, in the 1980s a group of Dutch paleontologists used Dubois's collection of more than 20,000 animal fossils to reassess the date of the layer in which Java Man was found.[23] Using only fossils from Trinil, they called that new faunal assemblage the Trinil H. K. Fauna, in which H. K. stands for Haupt Knochenschicht, or "main fossil-bearing layer".[24] By their reckoning, the fossils of Java Man are between 900,000 and 1,000,000 years old.[25]

The locality of the Pithecanthropus find, on the Bengavian River, near Trinil, Java. The two white squares show where the femur (left) and the skullcap (right) were discovered. Their discovery near flowing water was one of the many sources of controversy that surrounded the fossils.

Other fossils attest to the even earlier presence of H. erectus in Java. Sangiran 2 (named after its discovery site) may be as old as 1.66 Ma (million years), whereas the controversial Mojokerto child, which Carl C. Swisher and Garniss Curtis once dated to 1.81 ± 0.04 Ma, has now been convincingly re-dated to a maximum age of 1.49 ± 0.13 Ma, that is, 1.49 million years with a margin of error of plus or minus 130,000 years.[26]


Because the fossils of Java Man were found "scattered in an alluvial deposit" – they had been laid there by the flow of a river – detractors doubted that they belonged to the same species, let alone the same individual.[27] German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, for instance, argued in 1895 that the femur was that of a gibbon.[28] Dubois had difficulty convincing his critics, because he had not attended the excavation, and could not explain specifically enough the exact location of the bones.[29] Because the Trinil thighbone looks very much like that of a modern human, it might have been a "reworked fossil", that is, a relatively young fossil that was deposited into an older layer after its own layer had been eroded. For this reason, there is still dissent about whether all the Trinil fossils represent the same species.[30]


Stamp of Uzbekistan, 2002

More than 50 years after Dubois's find, Ralph von Koenigswald recollected that, "No other paleontological discovery has created such a sensation and led to such a variety of conflicting scientific opinions."[31] The Pithecanthropus fossils were so immediately controversial that by the end of the 1890s, almost 80 publications had already discussed them.[1]

Until the Taung child – the 2.8 million-year-old remains of an Australopithecus africanus – were discovered in South Africa in 1924, Dubois's and Koenigswald's discoveries were the oldest hominid remains ever found. Some scientists of the day suggested[32] that Dubois's Java Man was a potential intermediate form between modern humans and the common ancestor we share with the other great apes. This supposition has been confirmed, but the current consensus of anthropologists is that the direct ancestors of modern humans were African populations of Homo erectus (possibly Homo ergaster), rather than the Asian populations of the same species exemplified by Java Man and Peking Man.[33]

"Missing link"[edit]

Dubois's central claim was that Pithecanthropus was a transitional form between apes and humans, a so-called "missing link".[34] Many disagreed. Some critics claimed that the bones were those of a walking ape. Others said they belonged to a primitive human.[35] This judgment made sense at a time when an evolutionary view of humanity had not yet been widely accepted, and scientists tended to view hominid fossils as racial variants of modern humans rather than as ancestral forms.[36] After Dubois let a number of scientists examine the fossils in a series of conferences held in Europe in the 1890s, they started to agree that Java Man may be a transitional form after all, but most of them thought of it as "an extinct side branch" of the human tree that had indeed descended from apes, but not evolved into humans.[37] This interpretation eventually imposed itself and remained dominant until the 1940s.[38]

The gibbon's ability to stand and walk upright made Eugène Dubois believe it was closely related to humans. This is one of the reasons why he once claimed that Java Man looked like a "giant gibbon".

In response to critics who refused to accept that Java Man was a "missing link", in 1932 Dubois published a paper arguing that the Trinil bones looked like those of a "giant gibbon".[39] This phrase has been widely misinterpreted as Dubois's bitter retraction of his claim that Pithecanthropus was a transitional form.[40] It was in fact an ingenious argument to support it.[41] According to Dubois, evolution occurred by leaps, and the ancestors of humanity had doubled their brain-to-body ratio on each leap.[42] To prove that Java Man was the "missing link" between apes and humans, he therefore had to show that its brain-to-body ratio was double that of apes and half that of humans. The problem was that Java Man's cranial capacity was 900 cubic centimeters, about two thirds of modern humans'.[43] To preserve the proportions predicted by his theory of brain evolution, Dubois argued that Java Man did not look human, but was shaped like a gibbon. (Like many scientists who believed that modern humans evolved "Out of Asia", Dubois thought that gibbons were closest to humans among the great apes.)[44] Imagined "with longer arms and a greatly expanded chest and upper body" like a gibbon, the Trinil creature became a gigantic ape of about 100 kilograms (220 lb), but "double cephalization of the anthropoid apes in general and half that of man".[45] It was therefore halfway on the path to becoming a modern human.[46] As Dubois concluded his 1932 paper: "I still believe, now more firmly than ever, that the Pithecanthropus of Trinil is the real 'missing link.'"[47]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2012, the American studio The Asylum released a movie entitled Clash of the Empires (originally called Age of the Hobbits before being forced to change for legal reasons, titled as Lord of the Elves in the UK.) featuring a prehistoric struggle between Homo floresiensis (known as "Hobbits" in the film.) and their oppressors, the Java Men. The Java Men in this movie are shown as flesh-eating komodo dragon-riders. A Hobbit known as "Goben" must team up with Humans to defeat the Java Men.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 70.
  2. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, pp. 58–59.
  3. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 58; de Vos 2004, p. 270.
  4. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, pp. 59 ["unorthodox" venture; was refused government funding; hired as medical officer] and 61 ["he was the first person to set out on a deliberate search for fossils of human ancestors"].
  5. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 61.
  6. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, pp. 61–62.
  7. ^ a b "Java Man (extinct hominid) – Encyclopaedia Britannica". Retrieved 2013-06-05. 
  8. ^ de Vos 2004, p. 272 [citation from an assessment Dubois made in 1893]; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 61 [name Anthropopithecus].
  9. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 67.
  10. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, pp. 66–7.
  11. ^ "Sangiran Early Man Site". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2014-07-02. 
  12. ^ UNESCO World Heritage Committee (2002), State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, pp. 29–30. 
  13. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 42.
  14. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 75.
  15. ^ Schmalzer 2008, pp. 44–45 [date of discovery]; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000.
  16. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 76.
  17. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, pp. 76–79.
  18. ^ a b Boaz & Ciochon 2004, p. 67.
  19. ^ Schmalzer 2008, p. 98. The original paper is Mayr 1950.
  20. ^ Schmalzer 2008, p. 98 ("the "single-species" thesis to which he was committed became the theoretical foundation for paleoanthropology for years to come"); Boaz & Ciochon 2004, p. 67 ("was to sweep anthropology in the 1950s" ... "Thus was born the single-species hypothesis, a powerful model that endured until the late 1970s when fossil discoveries in Africa disproved it, at least for the early part of the hominid fossil record").
  21. ^ de Vos 2004, p. 275.
  22. ^ Kaifu et al. 2010, p. 145; de Vos 2004, pp. 274–75.
  23. ^ Kaifu et al. 2010, p. 145.
  24. ^ de Vos 2004, pp. 275–76 [explanation of the Trinil H. K. Fauna]; Zaim 2010, p. 103 [Trinil H. K. Fauna, citing de Vos et al. 1982 and de Vos & Sondaar 1994].
  25. ^ Dennell 2010, p. 155.
  26. ^ Dennell 2009, p. 155 ["The maximum age of this specimen is thus 1.49 million years, and not 1.81 million years, as implied by Swisher et al. 1994"]; Ciochon 2010, p. 112 ["As the relocated discovery bed proved to be ~20 m above the horizon that Swisher et al. (1994) dated, the skull is certainly younger than had been previously reported" (Huffman et al. 2006)"]; Rabett 2012, p. 26 ["the 1994 estimate of its age has now been credibly refuted (Huffman et al. 2006)"]; Dennell 2010, p. 266 ["the recent re-discovery of the precise provenance of the Mojokerto cranium that is now dated to a maximum of 1.49 Ma (Morwood et al. 2003) clarifies long-standing uncertainties over the age of this important specimen"].
  27. ^ Schmalzer 2008, p. 34.
  28. ^ Gould 1993, p. 135.
  29. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 69.
  30. ^ & Dennell 2009, pp. 159–61.
  31. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 69, citing von Koenigswald's Meeting Prehistoric Man (1956).
  32. ^ Schwartz 2005, p. [1][page needed].
  33. ^ Hetherington & Reid 2010, p. 64.
  34. ^ de Vos 2004, p. 272; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 69.
  35. ^ de Vos 2004, p. 272.
  36. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 54.
  37. ^ de Vos 2004, pp. 272–73 ["extinct side branch of human evolution"].
  38. ^ Schmalzer 2008, p. 258 ["While at the turn of the century a linear model of human evolution was widely accepted, from around 1910 to the 1940s, the dominant model placed fossil hominids like Java Man, Peking Man, and the Neanderthals on side branches of the family tree. These 'cousins' were understood to have become extinct, replaced by our unknown direct ancestors."].
  39. ^ Theunissen 1989, p. 152; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 68; Gould 1993, p. 134.
  40. ^ Gould 1993, p. 136 ["Dubois's ingenious attempt to retain Pithecanthropus as a direct human ancestor has been widely misread in a precisely opposite manner as an ultimate surrender, almost comical in its transmogrification of a human forebear into a giant gibbon."].
  41. ^ Gould 1993, pp. 133–34.
  42. ^ Gould 1993, p. 135 ["Dubois desperately wanted Pithecanthropus as a direct ancestor under his evolutionary view. But the brain of Java Man ranked with embarrassing bulk at some 900 cm3, or two-thirds human volume."].
  43. ^ Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 74 ["In common with other anthropologists of the time, Dubois believed that the human stock was rooted in some kind of gibbonlike ancestor."].
  44. ^ Gould 1993, p. 135 [the second citation is from Dubois's paper].
  45. ^ Theunissen 1989, pp. 152–56; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 74 ["Because Dubois applied the name 'Giant Gibbon' to this creature, many people took it to mean that, in a fit of pique or madness, he no longer considered his Pithecanthropus to be linked to human ancestry. Not, but the myth persists... By describing Pithecanthropus as a giant gibbon, Dubois simply meant that it was closer to gibbons than to humans in body form. And, he pointed out, gibbons and humans share many anatomical features that relate to humans' habitually and gibbons' occasionally upright mode of walking."]; Gould 1993, pp. 134–35 ["Dubois used the proportions of a gibbon to give Pithecanthropus a brain at exactly half our level, thereby rendering his man of Java, the pride of his career, as the direct ancestor of all modern humans. He argued about gibbons to exalt Pithecanthropus, not to demote the greatest discovery of his life."], 135–36 [citing from Dubois's 1932 paper: "Pithecanthropus was not a man, but a gigantic genus allied to the gibbons, however superior to the gibbons on account of its exceedingly large brain volume and distinguished at the same time by its faculty of assuming an erect attitude and gait. It had the double cephalization of the anthropoid apes in general and half that of man."] and 136 [... "Dubois never said that Pithecanthropus was a gibbon (and therefore the lumbering, almost comical dead end of the legend); rather, he reconstructed Java Man with the proportions of a gibbon in order to inflate the body weight and transform his beloved creature into a direct human ancestor—its highest possible status—under his curious theory of evolution."].
  46. ^ Theunissen 1989, p. 156; Gould 1993, p. 136; Swisher, Curtis & Lewin 2000, p. 74 [all three sources cite Dubois's phrase to show that he never abandoned the claim that Java Man was a "missing link"].

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]