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discoverer of Pitchecanthropus erectus
Marie Eugene François Thomas Dubois was born in Eijsden, Netherlands, on January 28, 1858. His interest in natural history was encouraged by his father, a pharmacist. He graduated with a doctorate in anatomy from Amsterdam University in 1884, and became an anatomy lecturer there in 1886.
In 1887, DuBois decided to go to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) to look for fossils of human ancestors. He chose that region because, like many others of his day, he believed that humans had evolved in the tropics. He chose Indonesia specifically because he believed that humans were closely related to gibbons, which are native to the Indonesian archipelago, and because a fossil ape had already been found in India. His choice was also undoubtedly influenced by the fact that the islands were governed by the Netherlands.
To make a living, DuBois joined the Dutch Army as a medical officer. For its part, the army assigned him two engineers and a corp of forced laborers to help him with his fossil search. In 1890 he decided to move his endeavor to the island of Java, where a human skull had been found two years earlier. His workers ultimately found a second, less complete, skull at the site where the first skull was found, but little else of note was uncovered.
Up to this point DuBois had been concentrating his searches in forested regions, but then decided to start searching in more open, and more accessible, areas. In 1890, at a site on the banks of the Solo River, his workers found a partial jaw with three attached teeth that, to DuBois, had a number of human-like characteristics. A primate molar tooth was found nearby in August 1891, an intact skullcap was unearthed in October, and an almost complete left thigh bone was found in August 1892. In 1894, he published a description of the fossils that included a claim that they represented a primate that was something between ape and human. He called this primate Pithecanthropus erectus ("ape-human which stood upright"). He returned to Europe to promote his fossils and interpretation in 1895.
DuBois's theory was disputed almost from the beginning. Many scientists claimed that the femur and skullcap had actually come from two different individuals, while others simply disagreed with his assertion that the specimen represented an "intermediate primate." By 1900 DuBois had stopped discussing Java Man all together and hidden the fossils in his home.
DuBois began allowing access to his fossils again in 1923, after years of pressure from scientists. After the discovery of "Peking Man" skulls in 1929 and 1936, and the discovery of other pithecanthropine fossils in Java in the late-1930's, scientists were prepared to place "Java Man' in the line of humans now known as Homo erectus. DuBois, however, refused to accept that his fossils were anything but the "missing link" and began emphasizing the apelike characteristics of "Java Man" over the intermediate characteristics. Subsequent finds in Java and elsewhere have, however, confirmed that "Java Man" is indeed a representative of Homo erectus, just as "Peking Man" has since been shown to be.
During his self-imposed hiatus from "Java Man" research, DuBois conducted research in a variety of other areas, the most significant of which involved the relationship between body weight and brain weight. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in botany and zoology by the University of Amsterdam in 1897, and became a professor of crystallography, mineralogy, geology and paleontology there in 1899. He officially retired from all research in 1928, and died in Haelen, the Netherlands, on December 16, 1940.
This page was last updated on 01/27/2017.