Dutch anatomist and paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois (1858-1940) was the first scientist to actively search for human ancestral fossils. His efforts led to the discovery of the so-called “Java man,” which was the first fossil discovery of Homo erectus, a direct descendent of modern humans.
Eugène Dubois gained international fame through his discovery of the Pithecanthropus erectus, which is now called Homo erectus. This discovery, as well as Dubois's related scientific claims, generated a great deal of controversy. Dubois's value to the field of anthropology, however, is inarguable.
Dubois was born on January 28, 1858 as Marie Eugène Francoise Thomas Dubois at Eijsden, in the province of Limburg, Netherlands. His parents were Jean Joseph Balthasar Dubois and Maria Catharina Floriberta Agnes Roebroeck.
Dubois was born within a period of important scientific discovery and research related to natural history and human origins. In particular, in 1856, two years before Dubois was born, primitive human fossils were uncovered in the Neander Valley in Germany. Then, in 1859, naturalist Charles Darwin published his controversial work On the Origins of Species. The new scientific knowledge would greatly influence Dubois's interests, education and career.
As a boy, Dubois demonstrated a great fascination for the natural world, especially the flora that flourished in the area where he grew up. He was encouraged in this direction by his father, who was a pharmacist. Later, as a high school student, he developed an interest in human origins.
Became a Teacher
In 1877, Dubois enrolled at the University of Amsterdam and studied medicine. An excellent student, Dubois became an assistant to Dutch morphologist Max Furbinger in 1881, an arrangement that further directed his education and career into anatomy. In college, he wrote a paper about the human larynx. The work discussed the organ's structure and suggested that the mammalian larynx evolved from the gill cartilage of fish. Dubois graduated from Amsterdam as a doctor in 1884. In 1886, he was appointed a lecturer in anatomy at the university. That same year, he married Anna Geertruida Lojenga.
Dubois's early post-graduate years were marked by resentments and frustrations. He was not a particularly enthusiastic educator (he entered his lecture appointment with some reluctance) and his relationship with Furbinger eventually became contentious. Meanwhile, he became even more interested in human origins, due to his discussions with Dutch botanist Hugo De Vries, who had studied Darwin and Charles Lyell, as well as Ernst Haeckel, who had come up with the name Pithecanthropus alalus for Darwin's proposed “missing link” between man and ape. As a result, Dubois wanted to prove Darwin's theories by finding the so-called missing link. The best way to do this, he reasoned, was through evidence of evolution afforded by human fossils.
Sought Fossils In the East Indies
To pursue his scientific passions, Dubois gave up his position at the University of Amsterdam in 1887 to travel to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he believed he had the best chance to find transitional human fossils. Earlier in 1876 and 1877, Dubois conducted fossil excavation efforts near the Neolithic flint mines in his own country, but he found nothing of substantial scientific value.
Now, Dubois chose the Dutch East Indies because of its plentiful caves. Up to this point, all human fossils had been found in caves. Moreover, the Dutch East Indies attracted Dubois because, like Darwin and other scientists, he believed that humans could only evolve in a warm climate, such as that afforded by the tropics. In addition, he believed that humans were closely related to gibbons, which live in Indonesia.
To gain passage to his destination, Dubois enlisted in the Royal Dutch East Indies army as a surgeon. He arrived, with his wife and very young son, on October 29, 1887, and was assigned to a post on Sumatra. The area was rampant with disease, and Dubois could only search for fossils during spare time from his medical responsibilities. Still, his early efforts revealed promise, and the government provided him with the services of two engineers and 50 enforced laborers. Despite these assets, Dubois's subsequent efforts were disappointing. In addition, uncovering fossils proved difficult, as Dubois was stationed in a harsh, dangerous environment, where foliage was dense and water was in limited supply. Also, illness beset his crew. One of his engineers became sick and the other died. Some of his laborers died, too, and many abandoned the fossil-finding enterprise.
In May of 1888, Dubois transferred to the Sumatran village of Pajakombo, which led to his discovery of animal fossils in the Lida Adjer Cave. In turn, the government subsidized further research on Java, where a human skull fossil had recently been unearthed in Wadjak Cave. Dubois was excited by the prospect of digging up more fossils.
Uncovered Important Artifacts on Java
Dubois began searching the same area on Java and, in 1890 at Koedoeng Broeboes, his workers found a second but less complete skull. Their find included the right side of the chin and three attached teeth. This discovery compelled Dubois to move beyond caves and into more open areas. A year later, he and his workers focused their efforts near Trinil, located along the Solo River. The site had yielded many mammal fossils. In August of 1881, they found a fossilized molar of a primate. In October of that year, they made a most interesting discovery: a skullcap that appeared not quite human but not quite ape. Dubois believed the molar and the skullcap came from a chimpanzee that possessed obvious human attributes.
Later that year, Dubois's crew found a whole skullcap, a discovery that would come to be known as “Java Man.” In August 1892, they made another significant discovery in the same area: a nearly complete left thighbone. Dubois proposed that all of the finds came from the same human-like chimpanzee. Further, as the thighbone's structure resembled a human femur, Dubois believed its owner had walked erect. This discovery, along with a later recalculation of the skull capacity, led Dubois to believe that he indeed had found the “missing link.” He named the specimen Pithecanthropus erectus, which means the “ape-man who walked upright.”
Dubois also felt his discoveries confirmed two popular, contemporary theories: that upright posture was the first stage in the evolution that gave rise to humans, and that the East Indies (and not Africa, as scientists including Darwin had proposed) was the birthplace of the human race.
In addition, more precise examination of the fossils, which had been estimated to be about a half-million years old, led Dubois to develop a saltationist theory about human evolution. The theory advanced the idea of a more rapid and punctuated rate of evolution than presumed in Darwin's gradualist theory.
While Dubois's discoveries in the East Indies and Java had helped advance the understanding of human evolution, his search proved to be an adventure fraught with peril. He had almost met with death due to malaria, tigers and collapsing caves. Most tragically, he lost a son to tropical fever. Later, a return trip from Java to Europe proved nearly as perilous. The ship that carried Dubois, his wife and his three children got caught up in a storm so violent that the captain ordered all passengers into the lifeboats. Reportedly, Dubois told his wife that if anything happened to their lifeboat, she would have to assume the responsibility of the children. He explained to her that he would have to concentrate on saving the important fossils that he had found.
Encountered Criticism in Europe
In August 1894, after he returned to Europe, Dubois published his findings and theories in a thirty-nine page paper titled Pithecanthropus erectus, eine menschenaehnliche Uebergangsform. In it, he described the Pithecanthropus erectus as neither ape nor human, but something in between (a “missing link”). As with most new ideas that broke from conventional thought, Dubois's work generated strong criticism. The main point of controversy involved Dubois's contention that the molar, skull cap and thighbone belonged to the same individual. However, while his ape-to-man theory was ridiculed, Dubois was praised for discovering a new species of gibbon as well as for placing human existence in the Pliocene epoch, some five million years earlier than had been believed.
Dubois strongly defended his interpretation, backing up his assertions with more information about his fossils. Also, he pointed out that some scientific experts felt the skull was ape-like while others thought it to be more human-like. This, he believed, only underscored his theory that the skull presented a mix of both ape and human characteristics.
In 1895, Dubois traveled throughout Europe to lecture about and present the fossils. On September 21, 1895, the fossils were displayed at the Third International Congress of Zoology held in Leiden.
Settled in Amsterdam
In 1897, Dubois and his wife made their home in Haarlem, located west of Amsterdam, where he took the position as curator of the Teylers Museum. He would retain the position until he died. That same year, Dubois received an honorary doctorate in botany and zoology from the University of Amsterdam. In 1899, he became a professor of crystallography, mineralogy, geology and paleontology at the University. Despite the recognition, Dubois's appointments didn't carry much prestige, especially considering the import of his work and discoveries.
As the nineteenth-century drew to a close, scientific consensus started to shift in Dubois's favor. Some previously dissenting critics had begun to concur with his interpretations. In particular, they agreed with Dubois's age determination and genealogical positioning for the ape-man. Still, Dubois harbored bitterness about the overall experience that he would hold throughout his later years. By 1900, he refused to discuss the Pithecanthropus erectus any longer. According to accounts, he stored the fossils in his home and focused on other research.
After 1900, Dubois conducted research into the evolution of the mammalian brain size as it corresponded to body size. Earlier, he came up with calculations that he felt revealed that brain size doubled with each evolutionary stage. However, these calculations did not fit into his theory that the Pithecanthropus erectus provided the missing link between man and ape. Thus, he was now compelled to modify his methodology. But his revised method has been deemed as an expedient way to support his saltationist theory of evolution. Specifically, critics pointed out that Dubois enhanced the body weight of the Pithecanthropus erectus to fit the theory.
In 1923, responding to strong entreaties from scientists, Dubois brought the Java Man fossils out of storage. By this time, the discoveries of similar fossils had made Dubois's fossils a popular topic of discussion once again. In 1929, the partial skull of Peking (or Beijing) man was found in China. Three more were found in 1936. Also, due to the increased acceptance of Dubois's Java Man interpretations, a Dutch anatomist, Ralph von Koenigswald, traveled to Java on his own fossil expedition. He eventually dug up fossil remains for almost forty individuals that strongly resembled the Pithecanthropus erectus. As it turned out, the new evidence unearthed demonstrated that Dubois's Java Man was not an intermediate species (or a missing link) but a direct ancestor to the modern human. As a result, these newer fossils, along with Dubois's fossils, were eventually reclassified as Homo erectus.
Died in the Netherlands
In the meantime, Dubois had officially retired in 1928, but he continued conducting scientific research. He died in his Haarlem home in the Netherlands on December 16, 1940. He was eighty-three years old. Dubois's discovery, the Pithecanthropus erectus eventually reclassified as Homo erectus, is regarded as one of the most important finds in history.
“Fossil Hominids, Human Evolution: Thomas Huxley & Eugène Dubois,” Understanding Evolution, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/_0/history_17 (October 31, 2007).
World of Biology Online, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 31, 2007).
World of Scientific Discovery Online, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 31, 2007).