Indonesia is the overlooked birthplace of professional paleoanthropology. In Europe in the mid-19th century, scientists discovered an extinct hominid species for the first time: Neanderthals. Actually, it’s more accurate to say Neanderthal fossils were found by lay people who then brought them to the attention of well-known anatomists. It wasn’t until 1890 that a researcher went into the field looking for hominid bones. Eugene Dubois, a Dutch medical doctor, traveled to Indonesia, then a Dutch colony, in search of human ancestors. In 1891, he discovered Homo erectus fossils and made hominid hunting a proper endeavor—and made Asia a destination for paleoanthropologists.
Trinil: Dubois’ discoveries occurred near the village of Trinil in central Java. His first find was a skullcap, now known to date to 700,000 to 1 million years ago. The skull looked humanlike, but it had thick bones, heavy browridges and a low, sloping forehead. A year later, in 1892, Dubois recovered a nearly complete thigh bone that looked almost modern. He decided the bones belonged to an extinct species that was a “missing link” between apes and humans. He named the species Pithecanthropus erectus (“erect ape man”). Sometimes called Java Man, the species today is called Homo erectus.
Ngandong: Dutch researchers discovered more H. erectus fossils, representing 15 individuals, in Java in the 1930s near the village of Ngandong on Java’s Solo River. Until recently, paleoanthropologists thought the Ngandong bones represented a very recent H. erectus population. Thought to be perhaps as young as 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hominids could have been contemporaries of Neanderthals and modern humans living in Europe and West Asia. But more recent fieldwork and dating analyses suggest the Ngandong hominids lived much earlier, sometime between 143,000 and 546,000 years ago.
Mojokerto: In 1936, an assistant working with the Dutch Geological Survey unearthed a partial skullcap of a two- to three-year-old child in eastern Java. Team member Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleontologist, recognized the skull as belonging to an early hominid, H. erectus. Although the exact location, and therefore age, of the fossil has been questioned in recent years, scientists generally think the Mojokerto skull dates to about 1.8 million years ago. That makes it one of the oldest hominid bones ever found outside Africa.
Sangiran: Between 1937 and 1941, von Koenigswald found additional H. erectus fossils at the site of Sangiran in central Java. The finds included three partial skulls, partial jaws and dozens of isolated teeth. These fossils, dating to more than one million years ago, helped confirm the validity of the species status of H. erectus. Today, tourists can visit the fossil site, which is home to ongoing excavations as well as a museum.
Flores: Indonesia’s most recent hominid discovery was a big shocker. In 2004, a group of researchers from Indonesia and Australia announced they had found an unusual collection of fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores. The bones belonged to a small-brained hominid that stood less than four feet tall and weighed less than 70 pounds—yet some of the fossils were just 17,000 years old. The researchers decided the “Hobbit” belonged to a new species, Homo floresiensis. Once the species’ ancestor, perhaps H. erectus, arrived on the island, the hominid evolved to be smaller as an adaptation to living on a small island. Critics, however, say the Hobbit is actually a modern human with some kind of growth disorder.