The Human Fossil Record, Part 10a: Homo erectus in Asia

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July 28, 2012 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by James Kidder. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today and tomorrow, Dr. James Kidder continues to tell the story of the evolution of creatures on our own small branch of the primate family tree, the hominins. Kidder’s previous post in the series looked at fossil evidence helping anthropologists answer the question, “When did our ancestors first start exploring beyond the African continent?” and focused on sites in Europe and the Middle East. Here Kidder turns our attention east and describes the discovery Homo erectus.


Eugene Dubois

It was 1890 and Eugene Dubois was tired. He had searched everywhere in Sumatra for the human ancestors that were supposed to be there—at least according to the theories of his mentor, famed German naturalist Ernst Haeckel. Instead, he had found only heat and malaria.


13 years before, in 1877, Dubois had arrived in Amsterdam to study medicine, but always harboring a desire to study the ancestry of modern humans. So, after four years at the University there, he accepted an invitation to go to the University of Utrecht to study comparative anatomy and devote himself to the latest thinking about the origins of the human species. It was during his time at Utrecht (from 1881 to 1887) that Dubois became enamored of Haeckel’s views on human origins, which differed from those of Darwin. While Darwin argued that humans had evolved in Africa, the region in which our closest living relatives—the chimpanzees and gorillas—still live, Haeckel believed that the origins of humanity lay in East Asia. This was so, he believed, because of his own observations of gibbons that walk bipedally when on the ground.

Haeckel also believed that there had once been a large landmass called Lemuria between the continents of Africa and Asia. In his view, Lemuria had since become submerged, leaving the modern islands of Madagascar and the East Indies as its only remains. The idea of submerged continents was not unusual for the late 19th-century, as people struggled to understand the character of biological diversity present in the world and why there were such striking similarities between animals that were geographically dispersed. The geographical distribution of marsupial fossils in South America and Australia is an example of this sort of problem, and one that was not solved until the second half of the 20th century when continental drift reconstructions suggested that ancient marsupials had used Antarctica as a conduit between the other two continents. Not only did such theories make sense of modern distributions, they were confirmed with later discoveries of marsupial fossils in Antarctica.

In any case, in 1888 Dubois joined the army and set out for the Dutch East Indies to pursue his ideas. For the next two years, he would comb Sumatra attempting to locate the hominin remains that Haeckel promised would be there. In hindsight, what Dubois was attempting was something that had never been done before: discovery of hominin material through the tools of archaeological excavation. Up to this point, all of the human fossils had been found on the surface, eroding out of the side of a bank, or as a result of farming. It had not occurred to anyone to go looking for human ancestors.

Now, with his supply of prison workers dwindling due to desertion and fever, he had almost run out of options and was on the verge of failure. Using almost all of his remaining resources, he decided to abandon his excavations on Sumatra and turn to the nearby island of Java. Emboldened by the fact that early modern human fossils had been discovered there (at Wadjak), he arrived and settled in at Trinil, on the banks of the Solo River, in 1890.

Figure 1: Dubois' Pithecanthropus erectus

The very next year, Dubois’ long-standing efforts were finally rewarded, first with the discovery of a skullcap (calvaria) of a hominin cranium, and then with an intact femur (Figure 1). Judging by what he knew of cranial anatomy, Dubois estimated that the skull would have been approximately 900 cubic centimeters (cc) in volume, placing it below even the lowest threshold of modern humans. Further, he noticed that it was not like modern humans in shape, being too long and low. He concluded that it showed “evidence of a form intermediate between man and the anthropoid apes” (Dubois, 1896). Dubois envisioned a sequence of forms in which the gibbon gave rise to a form of chimpanzee called Anthropopithecus sivalensis, which then gave rise to the form represented by the Trinil remains, after which Homo sapiens arose (Turner, 1895).

Dubois spent the next twenty years on the road with his find, trying to drum up support for its place in human prehistory. As with Raymond Dart’s discovery of the first australopithecine thirty-three years later, Dubois did not receive a warm reception. Most critics simply said that he had gotten it wrong and that the femur did not belong to the same individual as the obviously-primitive skull cap. Some of the criticism Dubois suffered could have been mitigated had he been more open to sharing the Trinil materials; but, instead, he allowed very little access to the bones, so that very few people knew exactly what they looked like. Adding to Dubois’s credibility problems was the 1911 “discovery” of Piltdown. This intentional hoax turned the paleoanthropology world on its head for forty years, sending researchers down innumerable rabbit holes. As I noted in a previous post, the Piltdown remains made all of the other hominin finds appear too “ape-like” to be on the road to humanity and informed many opinions about finds such as those from Trinil.

On the other hand, some critics of Dubois’ new hominin claim were vicious, and questioned both his academic abilities and his judgment (Shipman & Storm, 2002)—in addition to the interpretation of the find itself. It was in reference to Dubois’ work that the term “Missing Link” was first used with reference to a particular human fossil, originating with Charles Lyell (1863) and describing palaeontological gaps. And ironically, it was in one of the most stinging criticisms of Dubois’ work that the name that would eventually stick was first used: “Homo erectus.” Eventually, many other finds in the same general area and across Southeast Asia demonstrated that what Dubois had found was a real, previously-unknown hominin form, and the first to colonize the Asian continent and the islands leading off towards Oceania.

Homo erectus across South East Asia:

Figure 2: Sangiran 17


The earliest point at which Homo erectus appears to have begun to colonize the greater East Asian region is around 1.8 million years ago, represented first by the partial child’s skull found at the site of Modjokerto, and then, at around 1.66 million years ago, at the site of Sangiran, in Trinil, where Dubois had made his landmark discovery. This site was rich, yielding the remains of many crania, perhaps best represented by Sangiran 17 (Figure 2), an almost complete skull.

The material from the Sangiran site is very diverse morphologically, with some crania having capacities of as little as 700 to 800 cc, and other, larger heads with volumes in the range of 1000 cc. As with the late Homo ergaster finds from Africa, the remains from Sangiran yielded crania that were still widest at their bases, possessing large brow ridges. Some have thick cranial bones and are very robust (Sangiran 4), while others are very gracile (Sangiran 31). What this variation means is not clear, but most workers believe it represents a very diverse diachronic population (that is, one group living and moving around over a long period) rather than separate species inhabiting the area. The Sangiran site yielded fossil material in an almost continuous succession from approximately 1.66 million years ago to less than 800,000 years ago.

Because the area of the excavations—the Sangiran Dome—is a volcanic deposit, the layers have been securely dated by the 40Ar/39Ar method, although questions remain about the historical sequence and distribution of other animals that lived there through the ages (its faunal succession). The problem is that many of the fossils were not found in context, and relating them directly to the stratigraphy is tenuous. Despite this, most workers are comfortable with the earliest hominins in the region being at least 1.5 million years old.

One of the things hampering workers in this region is the comparative paucity of recovered stone tools. Those that have been found suggest a technological stage similar to the late Oldowan design, equivalent to that being created by the Homo ergaster populations inhabiting the area of Dmanisi and East Africa. Unfortunately, none of the tools have been associated with the hominins directly so it is not exactly clear who made them.

Figure 3: Sambungmacan 3


Another major find from the area where Dubois brought Homo erectus to light is the cranium from the site of Sambungmachan. This skull was reportedly found in 1977 but was then illegally sold to the antiquities market, where is spent considerable time in different collections before being “rediscovered” in 1998—in a New York nature curio shop called Maxilla and Mandible, Inc. (Delson et al., 2001). This was an almost-complete calvaria (Figure 3), with only part of the base missing. It is equivalent in size to the fossils from Sangiran, with a cranial capacity of around 1000 cc. It has a large brow ridge extending all of the way across the top of the eyes, a long, low cranium with a sloping forehead and a maximum width near the cranial base—all features that are also characteristic of the late African H. ergaster and Sangiran crania. Although we will never know exactly how old this cranium is, its morphology is consistent with that of the material from Sangiran.

Figure 4: Ngandong 6


Later in time, but also located on the Solo River, is the site of Ngandong, excavated by Oppenoorth in the early 1930s. At this site, fourteen calvaria have been discovered, all of which show advanced Homo erectus characteristics: long and low in shape, with thick-bones and a distinctive brow-ridge. (Figure 4). As with the other Indonesian finds, dating the Ngandong material has been problematic. The deposits at the site were originally thought to be around 100,000 years old, but this interpretation was turned on its head in 1996, when Swisher and colleagues claimed that the deposits were no older than between 27,000 and 53,000 years old (Swisher et al., 1996). These age estimations were made on the associated fauna, however, and as Rainer Grün and the late Alan Thorne pointed out, the faunal material does not match the skulls either in color or in texture and is likely not from the same time. Recently, Swisher and colleagues revisited the dating of the site and derived internally-consistent dates of at least 143,000 years before the present (Indriati et al., 2011). As with the Trinil remains, however, there are no associated stone tools.

Homo erectus in China

The Chinese Homo erectus material is very widely scattered and working in the region has presented many difficulties for researchers in terms of transport, language barriers and funding. Consequently, we know less about this region and its previous inhabitants than we do about most other areas of the Old World. Although there are between ten and fifteen sites that have yielded Homo erectus material, I will only touch on the most important ones.


Figure 5: Lantian

In the early 1960s, a cranium and mandible were found in the cave of Lantian, Shaanxi province, whose characteristics matched other remains from China designated as Homo erectus. Paleomagnetic dating has yielded a date no earlier than 1.15 million years ago for the skull, with the consensus being that it is around 800,000 years old. A date of approximately 650,000 years before the present was derived for the mandible. The cranium is heavily encrusted and suffered from postmortem deformation (Figure 5). When reconstituted, it was found to have a capacity of around 780 cc (low for Homo erectus) and the bones on the sides of the head are the thickest yet recorded. At this site some flake tools, mammal remains, and an ash deposit were all recovered, suggesting hunting and control of fire.

Figure 5: Hexian


Another almost-complete calvaria was found at Longtandong cave in the province of Hé Xiàn, dated to between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago. This find exemplifies typical Homo erectus in many ways in that it is long and low, with heavy muscle markings toward the base and the rear of the skull (Figure 6). The cranial capacity is around 1000 cc, a third-again greater than that of the Lantian calvaria. Its cranial shape is very similar to those found in Southeast Asia, suggesting that it straddles the Southeast Asian and Chinese boundary.

While both Lantian and Hexian were significant finds, another site in China boasted the single largest collection of Homo erectus fossils ever found at one site, as well as presenting one of the greatest mysteries in paleoanthropology. Tomorrow, in the conclusion of our look at Homo erectus in Asia, we’ll peer into the Zhoukoudian caves and consider how this species fits into the lineage of man.

James Kidder holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee (UT). He currently employed as an instructor at UT, and as a science research librarian at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has been involved in the Veritas Forum at UT and runs the blog "Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist."

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wesseldawn - #71416

July 28th 2012

Fastforward ten thousands of years: someone just discovered the scull of a Pygmie and compared it to the scull of a well-nourished person living in America in 2012. The supposition would be that they have a common ancestry but through natural selection  different species evolved but is that correct?

The finding presents unexpected evidence that short stature is a byproduct of other traits, not the direct consequence of natural selection.

George Bernard Murphy - #71420

July 28th 2012

I thought the Bone People had been pushed aside by the DNA people.

Lots of interresting things were made from “the dust of the earth”.

But no matter what you make from the “dust of the earth”,... whether  in the microscopic or macroscopic scale,.... it is still just a material stuff.

 Man’s soul is composed of different stuff,... on a non-material plane,...... but it can be actively modified through God’s spirit.

 That is why you and I pray.

wesseldawn - #71427

July 28th 2012

Bone or DNA? - aren’t they the same?

Prayer is more than just petitioning God, it’s ”waiting on God” that He may impart something to us:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:12)

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 13:18)

It’s this change that we’re after - the saving of the soul (Heb. 10:39).

*soul = mortal (of earth) = body/personality

*spirit = immortal (of heaven) = God’s image

The mortal soul beholding God (waiting on God) is actually changed into the same image that it beholds. God is a Spirit - therefore, these verses are actually saying that the mortal soul is enable to become a spirit/immortal by beholding the glory of the Lord.


George Bernard Murphy - #71431

July 28th 2012

Noo Wess,

 Most of these old bones don’t have any DNA in them.

DNA is the actual gene that instructs you body to build you a certain way.

 DNA is put together like a set of Tinker Toys so you can go back and reconstruct the order in which the construction elements were added.

 That [when compared to other even more ancient samples] will tell you which was first and which was due to a change in the original structure.

DNA is about 10,000 times more reliable than bone comparisons.

 But the oldest DNA they can analyze only goes back to the Neanderthals , about 40,000 years ago.  [and there they found a lot of surprises!]

But some of the bones are millions of years old.

 So… The bone people are strictly flying by the seat  of their pants

wesseldawn - #71438

July 28th 2012

Oh yes. I had forgotten as I read somewhere that it’s sometimes difficult to get a good working sample of DNA from the anicent Egyptian Pharoahs, never mind something far older.

Neaderthals had the red-haired gene. I think that the first man (Adam) had red fur as the Levites (priestly line) and David, are referred to as ruddy!

Jimpithecus - #71425

July 28th 2012

Author’s note: Figure 1, which reads “Dubious Pithecanthro erectus” should read “Dubois’ Pithecanthropus erectus.”  Not sure how that got through.

Francis - #71426

July 28th 2012

“[Dubois’] mentor, famed German naturalist Ernst Haeckel… Dubois became enamored of Haeckel’s views on human origins, which differed from those of Darwin.”

Ernst Haeckel was also noteworthy for his now-disparaged theory of recapitulation, which said that a developing embryo temporarily manifests characteristics from its long evolutionary history (e.g. human embryos displaying (alleged) gills.).

Haeckel was perhaps even more noteworthy for the fraud he perpetrated to support the now-discredited theory.$file/Haeckel+ABT.pdf


George Bernard Murphy - #71434

July 28th 2012

Yeah Francis Haeckels drawings showed the embryo looking like a fish and then looking like higher forms in the animal kingdom and he thought that reflected the steps in evolution.

 His famous mantra was “ontogeny  reapitulates phylogeny”.

 I learned that when I was a freshman in college and I thought I was brilliant! [So did my mother.]


What a shock!

Fortunately Mom has passed on and never knew!

Francis - #71429

July 28th 2012

I’m always amazed how anthropologists can piece together an entire picture and narrative based on just a few bones (e.g. Figure 1).

This article seems to look favorably on Dubois, ultimately (“Eventually, many other finds in the same general area and across Southeast Asia demonstrated that what Dubois had found was a real, previously-unknown hominin form ...”).

However,  another  evolution website, TalkOrigins, doesn’t appear as supportive:

“…Dubois’ results were hopelessly flawed, based on a small amount of real data and a large amount of speculation and special pleading… It was not until 1923 that Dubois, under pressure from scientists, once again allowed access to the Java Man fossils. That and the discovery of similar fossils caused it to once again become a topic of debate… In an effort to differentiate Java Man from these later finds, Dubois emphasized the apelike characteristics of his fossil, giving rise to the common myth that he had decided Java Man was just a gibbon, and had abandoned his claim for its intermediate status… In a eulogy, Arthur Keith accurately described him as “... an idealist, his ideas being so firmly held that his mind tended to bend facts rather than alter his ideas to fit them.”

Interesting too how just one particular field (study of hominin fossils) can raise so much fraudulent or illegal activity. I earlier noted the Haeckel fraud, and the author pointed out the Piltdown Man fraud and the Sambungmacan trafficking. We had at least one embarrassment in the U.S.:

GJDS - #71433

July 28th 2012


The ‘bone’ collectors are at it again. I remeber during my college days (many years ago) when I was cornered by a chap who wanted to ‘shove down my throat’ the ‘missing link that shows how evolution was finally proven by science’. Little seems to have changed over the years.

George Bernard Murphy - #71435

July 28th 2012

“I’m always amazed how anthropologists can piece together an entire picture and narrative based on just a few bones (e.g. Figure 1).”



Jimpithecus - #71437

July 28th 2012

It is quite true that Haeckel’s ideas were flawed but that does not take away from what he found.  And don’t forget that what he found was only one skull of many from the Solo River and that these matched, generally, what was found at Zhoukoudian and Sambungmachan.  As far as fraudulent activity is concerned, every single scientific field has skeletons in its closet that most people would wish stayed there.  Palaeoanthropology is no worse than most. 

wesseldawn - #71444

July 29th 2012

I agree. If Haeckel had not started the process we might be that much farther behind today!

It appears to me that rather than speaking with current anthropologists (not of the Christian persuasion) some people here would rather just shut them down that fast with no hearing whatsoever!

At the heart of science is the quest for truth (I hope). Science began (and continues) with an idea, then examination and through trial and error different things are ruled out until only the truth remains. However, if there’s insufficient data then it’s hard to arrive at definite conclusions. Yet we must not abandon the ideas but keep with them until they’re proven wrong or right.

Without the trial and error process then science would never have been able to get as far as it has! 

wesseldawn - #71439

July 28th 2012

George Bernard Murphy - #71440

July 28th 2012

No DNA on Ida?

 How do we know itis not a rat?

wesseldawn - #71479

July 30th 2012

I was disappointed that my first post didn’t garner any kind of response. If I were on a secular blog, they would be all over me like ugly on an ape.

Clearly the Pigmie article shows “adaptation” and not “natural selection” as has always been believed.

This leads me to think that often what has been presumed to be natural selection is merely an adapative process to environment. I believe this will change some aspects of evolutionary thought!

Francis - #71503

July 30th 2012


Don’t be disappointed. I’ll respond to your first posting.

Let’s stick with your time machine (“Fastforward ten thousands of years”).

Also, consider what I wrote about Mt. St. Helens on the blog for “Hominids Lived Millions of Years Ago, but How Can We Tell? (Videocast)”.

Now, assume that today a movie is being filmed near the base of Mt. St. Helens. The cast includes the 7-foot 2-inch Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the little guy (am I allowed to say “midget”?) who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers flicks, a 400-pound sumo wrestler, and skin-and-bones “supermodel” Kate Moss. Helens unexpectedly blows her stack and buries them all under 400 feet of lava and mud. In the topsy-turvy torrent some are buried 10 feet down, some 100 feet down and some somewhere in-between.

Back to the time machine. It’s now the year 12012 A.D. The paleontologists and stratigraphers are digging around Mt. St. Helens. They uncover the highly diverse remains of the aforementioned cast of characters. But at very different depths (e.g. Kareem at 10 feet, Mini-Me at 60 feet.)

What story do you think our future scientists would tell?

wesseldawn - #71506

July 30th 2012

It’s a good argument: they’re all buried at the same time but all would be dated according to the different sediment layer they were found in. Too, earthquakes or landmass movements could completely change location and sediment layer of some of the bones!

I see your difficulty. The age of the bones is probably not so much in question as I assume that carbon dating is reasonably accurate? Rather I assume it’s the question of “what the bones are exactly”?

I would like to hear how the experts in this field would explain such anomalies.

Jimpithecus - #71522

July 31st 2012

That is sort of the problem that we experience with the early Homo habilis stuff.  No one knows for sure whether we have two species or one in the deposits.  There is a great deal of dimorphism in the fossil material.


In the example that you give, Mini-me was played by an achondroplastic dwarf, for which the skeletal system is very distinctive. Kate Moss, despite being skin and bones, is skin and bones of a modern human.  A sumo wrestler would, as with Kate Moss, have the bone structure of a modern human (although there would be massive amounts of bony deposition on all of the joints).  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would also have a modern skeletal structure but it would be agreed that he represented a subset of the population that is several standard deviations off of the norm.

If you found only the skulls of all of the above examples, you would agree that they all were basically the same in terms of morphology.  On the other hand, with the fossil material, as you move through time, the morphology changes.  This is why when people began to unearth H. habilis and H. ergaster remains in Africa, there were sharp differences that needed to be quantified.  Hence, the species break.

wesseldawn - #71525

July 31st 2012

Thanks Jimpithecus, this clarifies alot but what do you think about the Pgymie article? Does it change things where evolution is concerned?

Were Cro-Magnon and the others also considered hominids/Neanderthals?

Of interest to myself (and others here I’m sure) is how the Neaderthals fit into the Bibical picture.

I personally think (based on what I find in the Bible, that man was the original Chimpanzee (or whatever monkey-like creature), the missing link (Neanderthal) and the first human) with variations of species occurring when Neaderthal and Homo-erectus (sapien) began interbreeding! What do you think about all this?

Francis - #71538

July 31st 2012


You wrote: “If you found only the skulls of all of the above examples, you would agree that they all were basically the same in terms of morphology. On the other hand, with the fossil material, as you move through time, the morphology changes.”

So you think the story the 2012 A.D. scientists would tell is that these specimens were all the same (i.e. 100% homo sapiens) (and I suppose all lived at the same time)? The skulls will save the day and reveal the indisputable truth?

I did some Googling. Here’s what I found:

Headline: Human skull study causes evolutionary headache.

“This study has important implications for inferences on human evolution and suggests the need for a reinterpretation of the evolutionary scenarios of the skull in modern humans.”

Then this:

“To learn more, scientists analyzed genetic, climatic, geographic and physical traits of 1,203 members of six South American tribes living in the regions of the Brazilian Amazon and highlands. Their research found that one group, the Xavánte, had significantly diverged from the others in terms of their morphology or shape, possessing larger heads, taller and narrower faces and broader noses. These characteristics evolved … about 3.8-times faster than comparable rates of change seen in the other tribes … The major changes the investigators saw apparently occurred independently of the effects of climate or geography on the Xavánte. Instead, cultural factors appear responsible.”

My note 1: Not a word in the article about mutations?!

My note 2: I’d bet you that if a skull from that tribe was dug up in 12012 A.D. the news-making “scientist” would not call it a specimen of homo sapiens, but rather something like homo xavántis. Sounds much better. The Nobel folks might take note.



Francis - #71539

July 31st 2012

Correction: Both dates above should be 12012 A.D.

Jimpithecus - #71593

August 1st 2012

It is true that the modern human genome is quite tightly constrained.  I have done morphometric analyses on the modern human data and many measurements vary very little.  For example, eye orbit height varies a millimeter each way around a mean of 33 mm.  If your eye orbit is larger or smaller than that, it flags it as being not within one standard deviation of normal. Further, the limited variation goes in concert with upper facial height and bizygomatic width.  The whole face is involved. 

Consequently, I am not surprised that the study in PhysOrg shows that there is interchange between these areas of the skull.  The other thing to consider is that when they write: “This means that, in evolutionary history,any of the changes may have facilitated the evolution of the others,” they don’t mean The day after tomorrow.  For example, the last classic Neandertals in central Europe lived between 38-45 ky BP.  The early modern human sample we have dates from between 34-27 ky BP.  There is only about minimally four and maximally eighteen thousand years there and yet you have changes in the face and jaw, as well as changes in cranial height toward modernity. 

This does not mean that the archaic traits are all going to go away at the same time.  You still have some brow ridges and occipital buns on these individuals, which are reminiscent of Neandertals. 

As far as the Xavanti tribe is concerned, there are a bunch of unknowns in the article.  Many isolated tribes will “self-select” in the sense that they will determine what are pleasing characteristics and what are not and breed accordingly.  If you add to that the genetic drift that goes on in isolated groups, you can get some very interesting morphological characteristics.

However, they would still fall within the range of modern humans as defined by the Howells modern human sample (  

This means that, in evolutionary history, any of the changes may have facilitated the evolution of the others.”

Read more at:
This means that, in evolutionary history, any of the changes may have facilitated the evolution of the others.”

Read more at:
This means that, in evolutionary history, any of the changes may have facilitated the evolution of the others.”

Read more at:

Jimpithecus - #71594

August 1st 2012

I have no idea what happened at the end of that comment.  I think the website embedded all of the “read more"s into the code such that when I copied the quote, it threw them in and the preview would not display them.  Annoying.   Ignore everything from “this means that, in…”

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