Genius failed to find human touch

The Man who Found the Missing Link

January 18, 2002

We are so accustomed to Africa as the homeland of humanity that it is easy to forget that this consensus is not much more than 40 years old. Australopithecus , although known from 1925, was long ignored as an aberrant ape, and it was only the Leakeys' 1959 discovery of Zinjanthropus at Olduvai that unlocked the fossil wealth of the Rift Valley, recast views on early human evolution and initiated four decades of increasingly spectacular discoveries. Before then, many workers would have argued for Asia as the source of humanity. Pat Shipman's biography records the life of one who early took that view, and whose discoveries were seminal in sustaining it for so long in the minds of others.

Eugene Dubois is known to palaeoanthropology as the Dutchman who single-mindedly sought and found Pithecanthropus , who took umbrage at the scepticism that greeted his claims that it represented the missing link and so locked up his finds, became increasingly truculent in later life and obstructed others attempting to further his discoveries.

Dubois was among that first generation to be influenced by continental exponents of Darwinism, notably Ernst Haeckel, whose grand evolutionary sweeps - unfettered by any lack of fossil evidence - incorporated a series of hypothetical transitional forms, including Pithecanthropus alalus ("ape-man without speech") linking humans with apes. After several years as a junior academic in Amsterdam, investigating the evolutionary anatomy of the larynx, Dubois resolved to search for Haeckel's ape-man in the Dutch East Indies. From our vantage, this seems an understandable if hardly promising location but, as Shipman makes clear, at the time it made good scientific sense. The region contains the extant orang and partly bipedal gibbon, while fossil ape teeth, then attributed to the chimpanzee, were known from India. Overall, evidence pointed to southern Asia as the cradle of humanity, and the East Indies was as good a place as any to search for fossil evidence of its birth.

Dubois joined the Dutch colonial army as a medical officer, and with his wife and daughter arrived in Sumatra in late 1887, moving to Java in 1890. Fossil-hunting occupied his spare time. In mid-1891, his native excavators began digging a sandbank of the Solo River near Trinil, central Java. They recovered an upper molar, then a skullcap, and in August 1892, a complete left femur.

Dubois initially assigned tooth and skull cap to an extinct chimpanzee. However, recovery of the human-like femur, and the realisation that the fossil cranium exceeded the chimp's in every dimension, convinced him this was the missing link, hence the revival of Haeckel's Pithecanthropus , with the species name erectus to reflect the direct evidence of its locomotion. This taxon is now generally referred to as Homo erectus ; a curiosity noted by Shipman is a Batavian newspaper article of February 6 1893 lampooning Dubois's views on the Trinil finds, which appeared under the byline "Homo erectus".

Shipman tries hard to present her subject in a sympathetic light, but faces an uphill struggle. In youth, Dubois was a swot and a prig, quarrelling with his father, sister and brother. As a junior academic, he imagined slights, plots and would-be plagiarisms to the point of paranoia. After initial passion, his relations with his wife, Anna, appear to have been formal, even cold, and the gulf between them deepened following a stillbirth in 1893. His attitude to his family is encapsulated in one incident. Returning to Holland in mid-1895, their steamer ran into a storm. The captain ordered all passengers into the lifeboats, whereupon Dubois remarked to his wife that in the event of calamity, she would have to save the children, since he would have his arms full saving the fossils. Fortunately, the ship rode out the storm.

Dubois's moody irascibility eventually alienated Anna so much that she insisted he move out of the marital home; he set up residence nearby, where he molested the housemaids. He also exploited his research assistants. One - J. J. Bernsen - toiled at cataloguing the immense fossil collection brought back from Java, but Dubois denied him access to Pithecanthropus because he was a Catholic priest. Ironically, Bernsen discovered within the Trinil collection additional erectus femora misclassified as mammalian ribs, only to die four days later from an undiagnosed ulcer, probably aggravated by the strain of Dubois's demands.

One intriguing aspect of Dubois's personality, well brought out by Shipman, was his relationship with two colonials - Robert Boyd, a planter 30 years his senior, and his manager, Adam Prentice, the same age as Dubois. As interested laymen, they provided Dubois with non-threatening intellectual companionship and, through their unfeigned admiration for his work, morale-sustaining support. This was crucial in the early Java years, with Dubois working in virtual isolation, but in the case of Prentice, it continued by correspondence long after Dubois had returned to Holland. Characteristically, their friendship did not prevent Dubois from accusing Prentice of having an affair with his wife. Despite his virtual monomania, Dubois could be surprisingly careless about his fossils. During the storm episode, he initially left the specimens behind in his cabin, having to nip back for them from the lifeboat. And later the same year, he left Pithecanthropus in a Parisian restaurant, anticipating Raymond Dart, who left the Taung Australopithecus skull in a London taxi. For hominids, post-discovery vicissitudes of preservation can match those of fossilisation.

Shipman's account is as well written as one would expect from her previous books. She has quarried the Dubois archive intensively to document his disputations and conflicts over Pithecanthropus , and corrects the popular view that late in life he considered it to be an extinct giant gibbon. She also sets in context Dubois's in some respects pioneering work on relative brain size, and presents a rounded portrait of a figure she views as underestimated. And Shipman is surely correct in her summary of Dubois as "this paranoid, brilliant and stubborn man... (whose) strong personality and irascible disposition harmed his reputation". The account is perhaps overlong in places (there are chapters describing colonial life when nothing much happens), but this is the most comprehensive and accessible treatment of one of the formative influences in palaeo-anthropology. So far as its subject is concerned the judgement is: Admirable? A qualified yes. Likeable? Very definitely not.

Alan Bilsborough is professor of anthropology and pro vice-chancellor, University of Durham.

The Man who Found the Missing Link: The Extraordinary Life of Eugene Dubois

Author - Pat Shipman
ISBN - 0 297 842900
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 580

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