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Athena Review, Vol.4, no.1: Homo erectus

The Discovery of Java Man in 1891

[Box 1 in Introduction to Homo erectus]

The initial discovery of Homo erectus in 1891 was due to the single-minded efforts of a Dutch physician, Eugene Dubois (fig.1), seeking evidence of an ancestral “missing link” between apes and humans in the tropics of southeast Asia.

While studying comparative anatomy in medical school in the early 1880s, Dubois read about the “missing link” concept of Ernst Haeckel (1868), proposing a bipedal “ape-man” named Pithecanthropus alalus. Determined to prove this theory by the discovery of Pithecanthropus fossils, Dubois selected Indonesia based on Haeckel’s (mistaken) belief that humans evolved most directly from orangutans, today only found in Indonesia; and Alfred Wallace’s view that the origins of modern humans might lie in Southeast Asia. Yet the selection proved propitious and led to highly important discoveries on human evolution.

[Fig. 1: Eugene Dubois (1858-1940) in 1928]

Dubois obtained a hospital post in Sumatra where he began to search for early Pleistocene fossils. Learning that Java provided more relevant geological exposures, Dubois transferred there to explore sites in the east-central portion of Java along the Solo River where fossils had been found by local farmers. Test excavations in sandstone deposits at Trinil in 1891 first revealed abundant fossils of extinct deer, elephants, and buffalo, and the molar of an extinct chimpanzee Anthropopithecus. Chimps lived in Java during the Pleistocene, bolstering the “missing link theory.

Then, in October 1891, Dubois found a fossilized skullcap (fig. 2) of a large-brained higher primate with a pinched-in region before the brain case (postorbital constriction; c in fig. 2) and thick brow ridges (supraorbital torii; t in fig. 2). At first, calculating the brain size as only 700 cc, Dubois associated the skull with the chimpanzee tooth found on the same level. The next year (1892), when a human-like thigh bone (femur) came from the same Trinil deposits, Dubois named the collective finds anthropithecus erectus, or “erect man-ape.”

[Fig. 2: Trinil 2 skullcap of Pithecanthropus erectus: c) postorbital constriction; t) brow ridges or supraorbital torii.]

After remeasuring the cranial capacity to 900 cc, however, Dubois changed the name to Pithecanthropus erectus (“erect ape-man”), after Haeckel’s term. The femur’s age remains uncertain, although it is thicker than modern examples. To Dubois, the association of the obviously early skull with the human-looking legbone, showing bipedal posture, provided evidence of the missing link sought by many late 19th century evolutionists.

When Dubois published his find in 1894 it met with great resistence from many scientists and the public. Eventually embittered, he locked the bones in a trunk, and only revealed the Trinil skullcap in 1923 to Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution. By the late 1930s the resemblance of the Trinil skullcap to Chinese finds at Zhoukoudian (box 2) became obvious, and Pithecanthropus was reclassified as an early human (Homo). Dubois, however, never accepted this, considering the Chinese fossils to be “degenerate Neanderthals.”

None of this, however, clouds the importance of his 1891 Trinil discovery. Dubois was correct in thinking he had found an early human ancestor. The Trinil 2 skullcap (dated before 800,000 BP) is recognized as the type specimen of Homo erectus.


Shipman, P. 2001. The Man Who Found the Missing Link. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Swisher, C.C., G.H. Curtis, and R. Lewin. 2000. Java Man. New York, Scribner.

(see also bibliography in Introduction to Homo erectus)

[Note: This article appears on p.15 of  the printed issue of Athena Review (vol.4, no.1). Copyright © 2004, Athena Publications, Inc.]

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