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COLUMN II

Java Man and the History


of Human Evolution
Jonathan Zilberg, PhD*
UNDAMENTALISM is alive and well in ivory towers sand in the terrace far above him. Scrambling up the slope,
where a tiny band of self-promoting alpha males beat he rediscovered G. Elbert's Ngandung bone bed which no-
their hairy chests over how we evolved from apes into one had believed in because his superiors had judged him
F erect and intelligent men. Java, and Southeast Asia, is
for them a stage upon which this competitive mating dis-
to be a man of "excessive imagination".
Haar unearthed the unimaginable,
In that bed, ter
not one but 12 fossil-
play, or peacock theory, often poppycock, plays out. ized skulls. They came to be collectively known as Solo
Few Indonesians know this fascinating tempestuous sto- Man. Solo Man, like Java Man, immediately became a
ry as recently recounted by Garniss Curtis, Carl Swisher lynchpin in the unfolding factional jihad over how to in-
and Roger Lewin in Java Man: How Geologists Changed terpret the evolution of Man.
the History of Human Evolution (2000). From the missing At this point Teuku Jacob, the leading Indonesian physi-
link, Pithecanthropus, to Solo Man, from the great Toba cal anthropologist of the time, decided to put the contro-
evolutionary bottleneck to the discovery of Homo flore- versy over Solo Man to rest, as he put it-to "finish Ngand-
sienses, Indonesia looms constantly large in physical an- ung". Jacob believed that Solo Man had lived about 400,000
thropology's consciousness. Interestingly enough plural- years ago and was getting fed up with all the masalah and
ism and fundamentalism are problematic in both contexts. the constant shadow politics of international science in
Physical anthropologists, a plural group, can be a lot like which he played the role of a sometimes willing and some-
fundamentalists. According to this book, many of them times unwilling dalang- that is, puppet master. So in 1994,
hard-headedly cling on to preconceived notions against he asked Garniss Curtis and his team to accurately date
any evidence or interpretation that does not suit their per- the Mojokerto child and the Sangiran fossils. Much to his
sonal views. It is a long and fascinating story. horror, the answer that came back was not at all what he
The search began in 1857, two years prior to the pub- wanted-100,000 years old, a date he believed to be unac-
lication of Charles Darwin's revolutionary book The Ori- ceptably young. More precise testing subsequently dated
gin of the Species, when Hermann Schaffhausen presented Solo Man to between 27 and 50,000 years old. The problem
the fossilized bones of a Neanderthal to a wholly skeptical was that the idea that Homo erectus was still around such
scientific community. The most vociferous of Schafhau- a short time ago was absurd according to accepted anthro-
sen's critics declaimed that the fossilized bones were not pological knowledge
old at all, that in fact they were the remains of a wayward Absurd? In October 2004, a latter day form of Homo
and extremely bowlegged Mongolian Cossack who had re- erectus was discovered in a cave in Western Flores. Natu-
turned to the region with Napoleon in 1814. According to rally, they named the little lady Homo floresienses. While a
this eminent scientist, the poor Mongolian's brow ridge learned contributor to The Jakarta Post swore that all the
was so heavily furrowed because the "man" had had the brouhaha over an Indonesian hobbit was merely an over-
bad habit of habitually frowning. Other skeptics offered an heated reaction to a simple case of dwarfism induced by
alternative hypothesis-that he must have been an Austra- protein deficiency, the specimen turned out to be between
lian Aborigine on a walkabout. 13 and 18,000 years old. Moreover, the Nage people of Cen-
Then, in 1892 Dubois discovered "the most famous, tral Flores claimed that they had exterminated the last of
most discussed, most maligned fossil" ever-Java Man- these small hairy human-like beings, the ebu gogo, only
Anthropithecus of Java, later understood to be a form of 200 years ago. If anything then, the fossil record is full of
Homo erectus or an upright man-ape. Ape-man or Man- surprises. And thanks to this book, anyone who is inter-
ape? There was a big masalah and all the names and evolu- ested can now find out how they evolved from an ape-like
tionary trees kept changing depending on who was doing ancestor into a large brained Tempo reader.
the measuring. The anthropologists needed another skull What Java Man most definitely does do is to make a com-
to settle the dispute. plete monkey out of all those physical anthropologists who
The ape-men eventually turned out to be human though were so busy marking their territories and pumping up
Dubois, as belligerent as a pumped up red-faced Mandrax their quasi-scientific fundamentalism that they ignored
baboon defending its harem, declared the deciding fossil a science at the price of their own extinction. In any event,
fake arguing that the reconstruction was biased. What had anti-fundamentalist hubris aside, and not even bothering
happened was that the Indonesian laborers had learnt that to insert feminist critiques into their turgid Cro-magnon
there was more money to be made if they smashed a fossil- science of the triumph of Man, the moral of the story is per-
ized skull such as this and sold it off bit by bit over time at haps this-don't furrow your brow in consternation, you
10 pence a piece. In any event, in the end it turned out that might turn into a Neanderthal. In fact, ladies, look around
not only was the ape-man now a homo but he could appar- you a little more closely, you might well find a Neanderthal
ently talk. So much for Java Man. Now for Solo man. in your own bedroom.
One day in 1931, a man called C. ter Haar was taking a Anthropologist
*
bath in the Solo river when he noticed a layer of stone and

TEMPO. MARCH 13. 2006 43 I


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