Marie Eugène François Thomas Dubois (January 28, 1858 – December 16, 1940) was a Dutch anatomist, who earned worldwide fame with his discovery of the first specimens of early hominid remains to be found outside of Europe. These discoveries of what he called "Java man," made on the Indonesian island of Java, would later be classified as specimens of Homo erectus—the first human ancestor to walk truly upright.
Dubois encountered rejection and even ridicule when he initially presented his findings, and subsequently hid the fossils, refusing any access to them for 20 years. He was totally dedicated to, if not obsessed with, the idea of finding what he believed to be the "missing link" between apes and human beings. He sacrificed everything to reach that goal: his career, family and friends. Such dedication, while often necessary to advance the frontiers of knowledge, runs the risk of stressing one's individual view above any evidence for a larger picture. After later findings, including Peking man, emerged, Dubois again entered the debate, stubbornly claiming that his fossils represented the true and unique missing link. Although his Java man was finally accepted within the framework of hominid evolution, Dubois is still regarded by many as a fanatic who held onto his ideas so firmly that he would bend the facts rather than alter his theory to fit them.
Eugène Dubois was born in the Dutch city of Eijsden, into the family of Jean Joseph Balthasar Dubois and Maria Catharina Floriberta Agnes Roebroeck. Dubois’ father, a pharmacist, encouraged his son's interest in natural history. At that time, important scientific progress had been made in the world of archaeology and anthropology: in Germany, the remains of an early hominid (later named Neanderthal) were found in the Neander Valley, and Charles Darwin had just published his The Origin of Species.
Dubois was an excellent student, and graduated as a medical doctor in 1884. He married the same year and was appointed a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Amsterdam in 1886. He studied comparative anatomy of the larynx in vertebrates, and soon became an assistant to the Dutch morphologist, Max Furbringer. However, Dubois’ life then took an unusual change in direction. Probably because of dissatisfaction with his teaching duties and some conflicts with Furbringer, Dubois shifted toward the science of paleoanthropology, of which he knew very little at the time. He became so infatuated with Charles Darwin’s work that he decided to leave his promising career at the University of Amsterdam and dedicate his life to proving Darwin right.
In 1887, Dubois joined the Dutch Army Medical Service and was sent to Sumatra, a part of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as an army physician. He took his wife and newborn child with him. After several futile years spent on excavations, due to the harsh physical conditions of the terrain and numerous problems with his team members, Dubois decided to move to Java, where a hominid skull has been found earlier at Wadjak. The move to Java proved to be good one, for in September 1890 Dubois’ workers found a human-like fossil at Koedoeng Broeboes. Over the next several years, Dubois excavated the rest of what came to be known as “Java man.” His success would have been complete if he and his wife had not lost a child to tropical fever.
Before his return to the Netherlands in 1895, Dubois published his findings, describing them as neither ape nor human but an intermediate species. On the way back with his wife and three children, the ship was caught in a storm, and they barely survived. Dubois managed to save the fossils he carried with him, by strapping the cases with them around his chest. Upon arriving in Europe, Dubois hoped that his discovery would change scientific world forever. However, he was welcomed instead with suspicion, skepticism, and disbelief. Some scientists accepted his explanation of the findings, but many did not. The controversy lasted for years, well into the twentieth century.
In 1897 Dubois was awarded an honorary doctorate in botany and zoology from the University of Amsterdam, and in 1899 he was appointed a professor there in crystallography, mineralogy, geology, and paleontology. He spent the next twenty years in research in different areas, especially in the study of proportions of brain and body weight.
When in the 1920s and 1930s more skeletons were found near Peking and on Java that resembled Java man, Dubois’ fossils again became the center of fiery debate. Dubois stubbornly argued in favor of his ideas, often remaining isolated from the rest of society. This cost him greatly—his wife left him, his best friend refused to support him, and his colleagues lost interest in his lonely battle. Dubois retired in 1928, but remained active in the scientific community, defending his position until his death in 1940. It is said that he died “alone, bitter and misunderstood” (Shipman 2001). He was buried in Venlo, Netherlands.
Dubois’ early career consisted of a comparative study of the larynx. He claimed that the mammalian larynx evolved from the gill cartilage of fish. Dubois later turned toward paleoanthropology—the study of human evolution through fossils. He believed that fossils could prove that Charles Darwin was correct and that humans evolved from apes.
Though hominid fossils had been found and studied before, Dubois was the first anthropologist to embark on a purposeful search for them. His desire was to find the “missing link”—the evolutionary stage between apes and humans. Dubois was convinced that the origins of the human species must be in the tropics, and so he went to Indonesia to start his exploration there.
He discovered several fossils of seemingly hominid origin, and called his finds Pithecanthropus erectus or Java man—"a species in between humans and apes." Later, they were classified as Homo erectus. What Dubois found in 1890s was a set of teeth, a skullcap, and a left femur (thigh bone). The femur suggested that its owner had walked erect. From the teeth and the skull, Dubois argued that the specimen was exactly between humans and apes on the evolutionary timeline.
Back in Europe, Dubois toured the continent to convince his colleagues that he had indeed found a "missing link," but although most anthropologists were intrigued, they did not always agree with Dubois' interpretation. They suggested that the fossils were either a primitive, possibly pathologically deformed, human remains, or that they belonged to different individuals. Some scientists claimed that the fossils belonged to a giant ape, probably a gibbon, for which Java was famous.
After being questioned and ridiculed in this fashion, Dubois stubbornly refused others access to his fossils, keeping them in the floor of his bedroom for more than twenty years. It was not until 1923 that he was pressured by his colleagues to again share the Java man with the academic community. The scientific debate slowly began to turn in his favor in the 1920s and 1930s. The discovery of Peking man in 1929 and 1936, and other fossils from Java that resembled Java man, indicated that he was not an isolated specimen. Dubois, however, did not share this opinion, arguing that only Java man was a true “missing link,” and that the rest were essentially human.
A series of controversies encircled Dubois’ discovery. First, Dubois originally found only a skullcap and a jaw, but later added to this collection a femur, which he claimed to have overlooked. This led some to believe that he had fabricated his findings to fit his ideas. Later paleoanthropologists suspected that the femur he found actually belonged to a different individual, of much more recent origin.
Secondly, the fact that Dubois hid his discovery and refused to share it with the rest of the community led to speculation that the Catholic Church had pressured Dubois from revealing the findings to the rest of the world.
Next, when the Peking man and other similar specimens were found that resembled Java man, Dubois tried to devalue those findings, claiming the uniqueness of his Java man. He began to emphasize the ape-like characteristics of Java man, in contrast to the human characteristics of the other fossils. His later writings clearly showed a turn to that position. However, this created a further controversy after his death, many claiming that Dubois had changed his stance on Java man, admitting that it was just a giant ape.
Finally, the controversy that lasted the longest is the conflict between creationists and evolutionists, in which both sides used Dubois’ discoveries to support their arguments. Evolutionists clearly saw Java man as a “missing link,” or at least a step in the evolutionary development of human beings. Creationists, on the other side, disputed Dubois' findings, regarding Dubois as fabricating the evidence to fit Darwin’s theory of evolution. His hiding of the bones, and the existence of additional fossils of Wadjak men (that do not fit Dubois’ theory) that were supposedly found but never acknowledged, are some of the incidents creationists used in their dismissal of Dubois' evidence.
Dubois was a highly dedicated and driven scientist, determined to find the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. He ignored the pleas from his family and friends not to leave the security of his job and conformity of his country, and embarked on what might be seen as a search for "a golden egg." His obsession with finding the "missing link" led Dubois to Java, and finally to one of the greatest events in nineteenth century paleoanthropology—the discovery of Java man, Pithecanthropus erectus.
However, instead of fame, this find brought him only trouble. Dubois spent the rest of his life in defending his position. It was only later that Pithecanthropus erectus was classified as Homo erectus—the first human ancestor that walked truly upright and was able to use complex tools, hunt, and make fire. Dubois’ name was finally recognized in academia worldwide.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Fossil Hominids: The Evidence for Human Evolution. (n.d.).
- Gould, S. J. 1994. Eight little piggies: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393311392
- Shipman, Pat. 2001. The man who found the missing link: The extraordinary life of Eugene Dubois. Diane Publishing Co. ISBN 075679160X
All links retrieved August 12, 2017.
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