Java Man was one of the first specimens of Homo erectus to be discovered, having been located first in 1891, in Java (Indonesia). It was originally given the scientific name Pithecanthropus erectus ("ape-man who walked upright") by its discoverer Eugène Dubois. Later, Java Man was redesignated as Homo erectus.
Homo erectus ("upright man") is an extinct species of the genus Homo, that lived from about 1.8 million years ago (mya) to 50-70,000 years ago. It is considered to be the first hominid to spread out of Africa, with fossils found in Asia and Europe as well. However, often the early phase in Africa, from 1.8 to 1.25 (or 1.6) mya, is considered to be a separate species, Homo ergaster, or it is seen as a subspecies of erectus, labeled Homo erectus ergaster (Mayr 2001). The later populations found in Asia, Europe, and Africa are considered Home erectus.
The initial 1891 discovery has been dated to about 400,000 years ago (Kreger 2005a). Originally, H. erectus was believed to have disappeared roughly 400,000 years ago, but some deposits in Java thought to contain H. erectus fossils were dated at only 50,000 years ago, which would mean that at least one population would have been a contemporary of modern humans (Smithsonian 2007).
Dubois is renowned both for his dedication, passion, and sacrifice that led to this very important discovery of Java Man and for a dogmatism regarding the finding. British anthropologist Arthur Keith noted in an obituary notice for Dubois: "He was an idealist, his ideas so firmly held that his mind tended to bend the facts rather than alter his ideas to fit them" (Gould 1990).
Eugene Dubois, a medical officer in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, is credited with the initial discovery of Java Man. Dubois, who had been a physician and lecturer in anatomy at Amsterdam University, sought to find the "missing link" and joined the Dutch Army "with the clear ulterior motive" of using his spare time to search for human ancestors (Gould 1990). The Netherlands had a colonial presence in Indonesia, and the view of Dubois' time was that tropical Asia offered the greatest promise for his quest (Gould 1990). Alfred Wallace, for one, was convinced the origins of modern humans might lay in Southeast Asia (Kreger 2005a). However, Dubois' search on Sumatra from 1887 to 1890 ended in failure.
In October of 1891, laborers working for Dubois—Stephen Jay Gould (1990) claims the day-to-day digging was done by convict laborers commanded by army sergeants—found on the island of Java, along the Solo River near the village of Trinil, a thick, mineralized skull cap (Kreger 2005a). Later, in August of 1892, a femur was reportedly found. In 1894, Dubois designated this specimen Pithecanthropus erectus (Kreger 2005a), based on a morphology that he considered to be intermediate between that of humans and apes.
At the time, this discovery was the oldest hominid (in the anthropological sense of human or close human relatives) remains ever found. It was also the first cited as support for Charles Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's theory of evolution. Many scientists of the day even suggested that Dubois' Java Man might have been the so-called "missing link," the creature that is supposed to provide the evolutionary connection between the apes and modern man.
Dubois made his find public a few years later, when he returned from Java in 1895. He received "much warm support" and "overt testimonials in medals and honorary doctorates" (Gould 1990). But he "also generated a firestorm of doubt and protest," with some labeling his find merely an ape, others argued that it was a diseased modern skeleton, and yet others saw a mixture of a modern human femur and an ape's skull cap (Gould 1990). Dubois was disillusioned, and withdrew the Trinil bones, and refused access to them; some say they even spent some time in box in his house under the floorboards or in a museum strong box (Gould 1990; Kreger 2005a). In 1923, he brought the specimens back for scientific viewing, but at this time was reported to declare that the Trinil bones belonged to a giant gibbon (Gould 1990). Gould finds this later claim to be a false legend. Rather, Dubois, who worked for years on brain size and proportions relative to body size, attempted (albeit mistakenly) to give Pithecanthropus the body proportions of a gibbon, but with an exceedingly large brain at exactly half that of humans, "thus rendering his man of Java, the pride of his career, as direct ancestor of all modern humans" (Gould 1990).
Dubois' find was not a complete specimen, but consisted merely of a skullcap, a femur, and three teeth. It was also not clear whether those bones came from the same species. A 342-page report written shortly after the find throws much doubt upon the validity of this particular specimen. Despite this, the Java Man is still found in many textbooks today. A second Java Man was later discovered in the village of Sangiran, Central Java, 18km to the north of Solo. These remains—a skullcap of similar size to that found by Dubois—were discovered by Berlin-born paleontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald in 1936, as a direct result of excavations by Dubois in 1891.
The best preserved cranium from Java is labeled Sangiran 17, and was discovered in 1969 by a farmer at Sangiran, Indonesia (Kreger 2005a).
H. erectus is an important find, since it is believed to be the first close human ancestor to leave Africa and the first human ancestor to walk truly upright.
Early in the twentieth century, due to the discoveries on Java (as well as in China), it was believed that modern humans first evolved in Asia. This contradicted Charles Darwin's idea of African human origin. However, during the 1950s and 1970s, the numerous fossil finds from East Africa yielded evidence that the oldest members of the Homo genus originated there. It is now believed that H. erectus is a descendant of earlier hominins such as Australopithecus and early Homo species (e.g., H. habilis). H. erectus appears to originally have migrated from Africa during the Early Pleistocene around 2.0 million years ago, dispersing throughout most of the Old World.
Kreger (2005a) notes that the Javanese specimens are quite controversial. They are not found in well-dated locales, are often found by locals and bought by researchers or interested parties, and the older dates are tenuous and lack consensus (Kreger 2005a). For example, the 1936 specimen was discovered by a hired laborer and the specimen was dated decades later on the basis of (1) looking at material adhering to the cranium; (2) matching this matrix to strata where it was believed to have been found, based on information on its finding; and then (3) dating that stratum (Kreger 2005a).
Sir Arthur Keith, an anatomist from Cambridge University, later claimed that the skull cap of the original find is distinctly human and reflected a brain capacity well within the range of humans living today (Lubenow 1992).
The multiregional position on human evolution holds that hominids such as the Java Man in Indonesia and Peking Man in China are the most direct ancestors of modern East Asians. The Out of Africa camp holds that the Java man and other Asian populations did not substantially contribute genetic material to modern humans, but were replaced by a migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa.
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