Tuesday, May 22, 2007
A skullcap and a femur uncovered a year and twelve meters apart, was the "quintessential evidence" for Java Man on the Indonesian island of that name. Eugène Dubois, the self-assured discoverer, immediately christened his find Pithecanthropus Erectus (erect ape man).
Imaginative artistic reconstructions, based on a single bone and a skull fragment, appeared in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals arresting the 1892 public’s attention.
The creditability of the discovery was immediately challenged, and the “brute” was generally dismissed as the jumbled combination of human and ape remains. Although Dubois contested that the relics were from a single individual, decades later it was reported that his Pithecanthropus collection contained an additional left femur i.e., Java Man had “two left feet.”
However, despite the hominid’s dubious authenticity, the “evidence” came just in time to rescue Darwin’s waning theory of evolution, a theory that had been increasingly discredited due to a lack of transitional fossil evidence.
The real intrigue of the Java narrative is not the revelation of some primeval “brute” but rather the humanity of its “evolved” counterpart who, compelled by arrogance and ambition, coerced his family to leave the familial setting of his professorship in Amsterdam and live among the danger, pestilence, and stagnant malaria infested waters of the impenetrable jungles of Java. Dubois buried four children there (American Scientist, Vol: 87, Num: 6, p504). And as the desperate ship’s captain, on the itinerant paleontologist’s eventual return to Europe, readied the lifeboats during a violent storm, Dubois instructed his wife: “If the lifeboat is lowered, you see to the little ones, for I shall have to look after this [Pithecanthropus]."