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Homo erectus
Indonesia consists of parts of the Sunda Shelf, extending from mainland Asia and forming the world’s largest submerged continental shelf; a deep-water channel charting what is known as Wallace’s Line roughly running between the islands of Kalimantan and Sulawesi, and between the islands of Bali and Lombok; and parts of the Sahul Shelf, an extension of Australia. Despite arcs of frequent volcanic activity and patterns of rising and falling sea levels, this has been a favored region for modern humans and their hominid predecessors for nearly 2 million years. Today Indonesia is of crucial importance to the study of human origins and evolution. Sites in central Java, such as Sangiran and Ngandong, now account for about 75 percent of the world’s examples of homo erectus, an early hominid type. Most recently, the 2004 announcement of discoveries on the island of Flores (between Bali and Timor) created international controversy because they suggested an entirely new, locally evolved, and distinctively smaller hominid form overlapping chronologically with both homo erectus and modern humans. [Source: Library of Congress *]

About 800,000 years ago, some early hominids of the archipelago made stone tools, constructed water craft sophisticated enough to cross 25 kilometers of rough sea channel, and may have used fire and language. About 600,000 years ago, a fairly sophisticated hominid culture was widely distributed throughout what is now Indonesia. The earliest modern humans cannot currently be firmly dated before about 40,000 years ago, but some specialists argue either that they appeared much earlier (as much as 90,000 years ago) in a rapid dispersal from Africa, or that they evolved independently in East or Southeast Asia from existing hominid stock. Whatever the case, Indonesia’s earliest modern humans did not immediately or everywhere displace their hominid relatives but coexisted with them for tens of thousands of years. The earliest modes of their existence show little evidence of having deviated markedly from those of their predecessors. A pattern evolved of small hunting-fishing-foraging communities depending on tools made of shell, wood, bamboo, and stone, adapting to a wide variety of ecological niches and remaining in contact with neighboring peoples over land and sea. *

Stone flake tools, found near a stegodons (ancient elephant), dated to 840,000 years ago, were found in the Soa Basin of Flores. The tools are thought to have belonged to Homo Erectus. They only way to get the island is by boat, through sometimes turbulent seas, which implies Homo erectus built seaworthy rafts or some other kind of vessel. This discovery is regarded with caution but may mean that early hominids may have cross the Wallace Line 650,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Beginning in the 1890s, paleontologists discovered fossil remains of creatures on the island of Java that, while probably not the direct ancestors of modern humans, were closely related to them. These Javan hominids, known by scientists as Homo erectus, lived 500,000 years ago and some possibly as long as 1.7 million years ago. Their remains are identified as Jetis--the earlier specimens found in eastern Java--and Trinil--later specimens found in Central Java, including the Solo River area. Evidence of probable descendants of the Trinil erectus, known as Homo soloensis or Solo Man, was found at Ngandong, also in Central Java; these descendants are thought to have evolved between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago. Assemblages of stone tools have not clearly been tied to Homo soloensis, but there is evidence that these early Homo sapiens had a rudimentary social organization (small hunting and gathering bands) and used simple tools around 40,000 years ago. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Many observers agree that the modern inhabitants of Indonesia may be descended from Homo erectus. Although insufficient paleographical information makes it impossible to determine precisely the dates of migrations by modern Homo sapiens, contrary to earlier hypotheses of migration from the Malay Peninsula, many experts believe that Indonesia's early population-- comprised of the ancestors of most of its present inhabitants--was the product of continued hominid evolution within the archipelago. There was, of course, continuing seepage of other populations into the gene pool, contributing to the complex ethnographic picture of Indonesia. That the archipelago may have developed its own Homo sapiens line has not been ruled out by some scholars. *

Homo Erectus sites: Mojokerto, 1.8 million years ago; Sangrian 1.6 to 1 million years ago; Trinil (Java Man), 900,000 years ago; Ngandong, 53,000 to 27,000 years ago.

Homo Erectus

Homo erectus had a considerably larger brain than Homo habilis, its predecessor. It fashioned more advanced tools (double-edged, teardrop-shaped "hand axes" and "cleavers" ) and controlled fire (based on the discovery of charcoal with erectus fossils). Better foraging and hunting skills, allowed it to exploit its environment better than Homo habilis Nickname: Peking Man, Java Man.

Homo erectus lived for 1.3 million years and spread from Africa to Europe and Asia. Paleontologist Alan Walker told National Geographic, Homo erectus "was the velociraptor of its day. If you could look one in the eyes, you wouldn't want to. It might appear to be human, but you wouldn't connect. You'd be prey."

Geologic Age 1.7 million years to 250,000 years ago. Homo erectus lived at the same time as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis and perhaps Neanderthals. Linkage to Modern Man: Regarded as a direct ancestor of modern man, May have had primitive language skills. Discovery Sites: Africa and Asia. Most Homo erectus fossils have been found in eastern Africa but specimens have also been found in southern Africa, Algeria, Morocco, China and Java.

Websites and Resources: Modern Human Origins ; Talk Origins Index ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Time Space Chart Hominid Fossils Pictures ; Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Human Evolution Images ;Hominid Species ; Institute of Human Origins ; Paleoanthropology Link ; Britannica Human Evolution ;Modern Human Origins ; Human Evolution ; Paleoanthropology and Evolution Links ;National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey ; Yale Peabody Museum ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; Book: The Human Evolution Source Book

Homo Erectus Size

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Homo erectus
Size: The tallest hominid species until modern man. The body looked almost like a modern human. males: 5 feet 10 inches tall, 139 pounds; females: 5 feet 3 inches tall, 117 pounds. Homo erectus was considerably larger than its forebears. Scientists speculate that the reason for this is that they ate more meat.

Brain Size: 800 to 1000 cubic centimeters. Enlarged over the years from the size of a one -year-old infant to that of a 14-year-old boy (about three-fourths the size of a modern adult human brain). A 1.2-million-year-old skull from Olduvai Gorge had a cranial capacity of 1,000 cubic centimeters, compared to 1,350 cubic centimeters for a modern human and 390 cubic centimeters for a chimp.

In an August 2007 article in Nature, Maeve Leakey of the Koobi Fora Research Project announced her team had found a well-preserved, 1.55-million-year-old skull of a young adult Homo erectus east of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The skull was the smallest ever found of the species which indicated that Homo erectus may not have been as advanced as had been previously thought. The finding does not challenge the theory that Homo erectus are the direct ancestors of modern humans. But does make one step back and wonder could such an advanced creature such a modern man evolved from such a diminutive, small-brained creature such as Homo erectus .

The finding shows that if nothing else there is great degree of variation in the size of Homo erectus specimens. The fossils were found several years before but extra care was taken identifying the species and dating the fossils, which was done from volcanic ash deposits.

Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the authors of the discovery, said that the variation in sizes is particularly noticeable between males and females and the finding seems to suggest that sexual dimorphism was present among Homo erectus . Daniel Leiberman, a Harvard anthropology professor, told the New York Times, “the small skull has got to be female, and my guess is all the previous erectus we have found turn out to be male.” If this turns out to be true then it could turn out that Homo erectus had a gorilla-like sex life like that of Australopithecus robustus (See Australopithecus robustus).

Homo Erectus Skull and Body Features

Homo erectus skull
Skull Features: Thickest skull of all homonids: long and low and resembling a "partially deflated football." More similar to predecessors than modern man, no chin, protruding jaw, low and heavy braincase, thick browridges, and backward sloping forehead. Compared to its predecessors there was a reduced size and projection of the face, including much smaller teeth and jaws than those of Paranthropus and loss of the skull crest. A bony nasal bridge suggests a nose that projected like ours. Homo erectus was the first hominid to have asymmetrical brains like modern humans. The frontal lobe, where complex thinking takes place in modern humans, was relatively underdeveloped. The small hole in vertebrae probably meant that not enough information was transferred from the brain to the lungs, neck and mouth to make speech possible.

Body Features: Body similar to modern humans. It had long-limbed proportions common in tropical people. Tall, lean and slim hipped, it had a rib cage virtually identical to that of modern humans and strong bones able to withstand the wear and tear of a hard life on the savannah.

Homo erectus was about five to six feet tall. Its narrow pelvis, changes in the hips and arched foot meant that it could move more efficiently and quickly on two legs than even modern humans. The legs grew longer relative to the arms, indicating more efficient walking and perhaps running,It almost certainly could run like modern humans. It's large size meant it had a large surface area able to dissipate tropical heat through sweating.

Homo erectus's teeth and jaws were smaller and less powerful than its predecessors because meat, its main food source, is easier to chew than coarse vegetation and nuts eaten by its predecessors. It was most likely a hunter well adapted for the open grasslands of savannah Africa.

Homo erectus's skull was surprisingly thick--- so thick in fact that some fossil hunters have mistaken it for a turtle shell. The top and sides of the cranium had thick, bony walls and a low, a wide profile, and in many ways resembled a bicycle helmet. Scientists have long wondered why the skull was so helmet-like: it didn’t offer much protection against predators that killed mostly by bites to the neck. Recently it has been suggested that a thick skull offered protection against other homo erectus, namely males who battled each other, perhaps by bashing each other with stone tools aimed at the head. On some erectus skulls there is evidence that suggests the head may have been struck with repeated heavy blows.

Homo Erectus Tools

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tools found at
Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia
Hand axes are usually associated with Homo erectus . Ones found at Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia are believed to be between 1.37 and 1.7 million year old. Describing a primitive 1.5- to 1.7-million-year-old ax, Ethiopian archaeologist Yonas Beyene told National Geographic, "You don't see much refinement here. They've only been knapped away a few flakes to make the edge sharp." After displaying a beautifully-crafted ax from a perhaps a 100,000 year later he said, "See how refined and straight the cutting edge has become. It was an artform for them. It wasn't just for cutting. Making these is time-consuming working."

Thousands of primitive hand 1.5-million- to 1.4-million-year-old hand axes have been Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Ubeidya, Israel. Carefully-crafted, sophisticated 780,000-year-old hand axes have been unearthed in Olorgesaile, near the Kenya and Tanzania border. Scientists believe they were used to butcher, dismember and deflesh large animals like elephants.

Sophisticated Homo erectus teardrop-shaped stone axes that fit snugly in the hand and had a sharp edged created by careful shearing of the rock on both sides. The tool could be used to cut, smash and beat.

Big symmetrical hand axes, known as Acheulan tools, endured for more than 1 million years little changed from the earliest versions found. Since few advances were made one anthropologists described the period in which Homo erectus lived as a time of “almost unimaginable monotony.” Acheulan tools are named after 300,000-year-old hand axes and other tools found in St. Acheul, France.


Java Man

Java Man
Java man was discovered by Eugene DuBois, a young Dutch military doctor, who came to Java in 1887 with the sole purpose of finding the "missing link" between humans and apes after hearing about discoveries of ancient human bones (which later turned out to belong to modern man) near the Javanese village of Wajak, near Tulung Agung, in eastern Java.

With the help of 50 East Indian convict laborers, he discovered a skull cap and thighbone---that clearly didn't belong to an ape---along the banks of the Sunngai Bengawan Solo River in 1891. After measuring the cranial capacity of the skull with mustard seeds, Dubois realized that the creature was more of an "ape-like man" than a "man-like ape." Dubois dubbed the find Pithecanthropus erectus , or "upright ape-man,” which is now regarded as an example of Homo erectus .

The discovery of Java Man was the first major hominid find, and helped launch the study of early man. His finding created such a storm of controversy that Dubois felt compelled to re-bury the bones for 30 years to protect them.

DuBois was the student of Ernst Haeckel, a Charles Darwin disciple who wrote History of Natural Creation (1947), which advocated the Darwinian view of evolution and speculated about primitive human beings. Dubois came to Indonesia with the ambition of confirming Haekel’s theories. He died a bitter man because his discoveries he felt weren't taken seriously.

After Dubois other Homo erectus bones were unearthed in Java. In the 1930s, Ralph von Koenigswald found fossils, dated at be 1 million years old, near the village of Sangiran, along the Solo river, 15 kilometers north of Solo. Other fossils have been found along the Sungai Bengawan Solo in Central and East Java and near Pacitan in East Java’s south coast. In 1936 a skull of a child was found at Perning neat Mojokerto.

Book: Java Man by Carl Swisher, Garniss Curtis and Roger Lewis.

Redating Java Man

Java Man skull
In 1994, Berkeley scientist Carl Swisher shook up the paleontology world when he redated the volcanic sediments of a Homo erectus Java man skull using a sophisticated mass spectrometer--- that accurately measure the radioactive decay rates of potassium and argon found in volcanic sediments---and found that the skull was 1.8 million years old instead of 1 million years old as was previously reported. His discovery placed Homo erectus in Indonesia, some 800,000 years before it was thought to have left Africa.

Critics of Swisher's findings say that the skull may have been washed into older sediments. In response his critics Swisher has dated numerous sediment samples taken where hominid fossils were found in Indonesia and found that most of the sediments were 1.6 million years old or older.

In addition to that Homo erectus fossils found at site called Ngandong in Indonesia, previously thought to be between 100,000 and 300,000 years old, were dated in strata between 27,000 and 57,000 years old. This implies that Homo erectus live much longer than anyone thought and Homo erectus and Homo sapiens existed at the same time on Java. Many scientists are skeptical about the Ngandong dates.

Hominids Cross the Wallace Line

Stone flake tools, found near a stegodons (ancient elephant), dated to 840,000 years ago, were found in the Soa Basin on Indonesian island of Flores. The tools are thought to have belonged to Homo Erectus. They only way to get the island is by boat, through sometimes turbulent seas, which implies Homo erectus built seaworthy rafts or some other kind of vessel. This discovery is regarded with caution but may mean that early hominids may have cross the Wallace Line 650,000 years earlier than previously thought.

During several ice ages when sea levels dropped Indonesia was connected to the Asian continent. It is believed that Homo erectus arrived in Indonesia during one of the ice ages.

The Wallace Line is an invisible biological barrier described by and named after the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. Running along the water between the Indonesia islands of Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, it separates the species found in Australia, New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those found in western Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia.

Because of the Wallace Line Asian animals such as elephants, orangutans and tigers never ventured further east than Bali, and Australian animals such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, wallabies and cockatoos never made it to Asia. Animals from both continents are found in some parts of Indonesia.

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-Fossil teeth of Indonesian pigs at Java Man site

The first people to cross the Wallace line from Bali to Lombok, Indonesia, scientists speculate, arrived in a kind of paradise free of predators and competitors. Crustaceans and mollusks could be collected from tidal flats and pygmy elephants unafraid of man could be easily hunted. When food supplies ran low, the early inhabitants moved on to the next island, and the next until the finally reached Australia.

The discovery of the Hobbits in Flores is thought to confirm that Homo Erectus crossed the Wallace Line. See Hobbits.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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