The American Journal of Science/Series 3, Volume 49/On the Pithecanthropus erectus, Dubois, from Java

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Art. XV.—On the Pithecanthropus erectus, Dubois,[1] from Java; by O. C. Marsh. (With Plate II.)

A recent discovery of great interest is recorded in the memoir here cited. In many respects, this discovery appears to be one of the most important since the Neanderthal skull was brought to light in 1857, and hence the main facts concerning it deserve early notice in this Journal. This memoir of forty pages contains a full description, with illustrations, of part of a skull, a molar tooth, and a femur, found in the later Tertiary strata of Java, and pertaining to a large anthropoid ape, which is believed to represent a new genus and family intermediate between the Simiidæ and Hominidæ. This would make it a veritable "missing link" between the higher apes and man, the discovery of which has so long been confidently predicted by many anthropologists.

The locality of these remains was near Trinil, in the precinct Ngawi of the Madiun province, in central Java. The three specimens, the tooth, the skull, and the femur, were found at different times, in the same horizon, and all imbedded in the same volcanic tufa. The tooth was found first, in September, 1891, in the left bank of the river Bengawan, about a meter below the water level of the river during the dry season, and twelve or fifteen meters below the plain in which the river had cut its bed. A month later, the skull was discovered, only a meter distant from the place where the tooth lay, and both apparently pertained to the same individual. In August, 1892, the left femur also was found, about fifteen meters distant from the locality where the other specimens were imbedded. Subsequent researches in the vicinity, for additional remains, were unsuccessful.

The fossils thus secured have been carefully investigated by Dr. Dubois, who regards them as representing a distinct species and genus,[2] and also a new family, which he names the Pithecanthropidæ, and distinguishes mainly by the following characters:

Brain cavity absolutely larger, and, in proportion to the size of the body, much more capacious than in the Simiidæ, yet less so than in the Hominidæ. Capacity of the skull about two-thirds the average of that of man. Inclination of the nuchal surface of the occiput considerably greater than in the Simiidæ. Dentition, although somewhat specialized, still of the simian type. Femur equal in its dimensions to that of man, and like that adapted for walking in an upright position.

Of this skull, the upper portion alone is preserved, the line of fracture extending from the glabella backward irregularly to the occiput, which it divides somewhat below the upper nuchal line. The cranium seen from above is an elongated oval in outline, dolichocephalic; and is distinguished from that of other anthropoid apes by its large size and its higher arching in the coronal region, as shown below in figure 2. The greatest length from the glabella to the posterior projection of the occiput is 185mm. The greatest breadth is 130mm, and the smallest, behind the orbits, is 90mm. The cranium in its original condition must have been of somewhat larger dimensions. The upper surface of the skull is smooth, and the sutures all appear to be obliterated.

This dolichocephalic skull, with an index of 70°, is readily distinguished from that of the Orang-utan, which is decidedly brachycephalic. The absence of the characteristic cranial crests will separate it from the skull of the adult Gorilla. In its smooth upper surface and general form, it shows a resemblance to the skull of the Chimpanzee, and still closer to that of the Gibbons (Hylobates).

A figure of the present specimen and the skull of a Gibbon for comparison are shown in figure 1, Plate II. These figures and those that follow are reproduced directly, but not all successfully, from illustrations in Dr. Dubois's memoir.

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Figure 2.—Longitudinal outlines of crania.

H. European man; P. Pithecanthropus; Ha. Hylobates agilis;
A. Chimpanzee; Hs. Hylobates syndactylus. (After Dubois.)

The tooth, the first specimen found, is the last upper molar of the right side, and is in good preservation. It indicates a fully adult, but not very old, animal. The crown is subtriangular in form, with the corners rounded, and the narrowest portion behind. The antero-posterior diameter of the crown is ll⋅3mm, and the transverse diameter 15⋅3. The grinding surface of the crown is concave, and much less rugose than in existing anthropoid apes.

The femur, which is from the left side, is in fair preservation, although it was somewhat injured in removing it from the surrounding rock. It belonged to a fully adult individual. In form and dimensions, it resembles so strongly a human femur that only a careful comparison would distinguish one from the other. The bone is very long, its greatest length being 455mm. The shaft is slender and nearly straight. The general form and proportions of this femur are shown in figure 3, Plate II, with a human femur for comparison.

These precious remains, the skull, tooth, and femur, are described by Dr. Dubois, with full details, and for these the anatomical reader will look to the memoir itself. The conclusions drawn by the author from these fossils are so comprehensive, that they will be carefully weighed by anthropologists of every nation. It is only justice to Dr. Dubois and his admirable memoir to say here, that he has proved to science the existence of a new prehistoric anthropoid form, not human indeed, but in size, brain power, and erect posture, much nearer man than any animal hitherto discovered, living or extinct.

The brief review here given of the main facts relating to this discovery, together with the figures reproduced from the memoir, will afford the reader some idea of the importance of this latest addition to the known allies of primæval man, if not to his direct ancestry. Whatever light future researches may throw upon the affinities of this new form that left its remains in the volcanic deposits of Java during later Tertiary time, there can be no doubt that the discovery itself is an event equal in interest to that of the Neanderthal skull.

The man of the Neander valley remained without honor, even in his own country, for more than a quarter of a century, and was still doubted and reviled when his kinsmen, the men of Spy, came to his defense, and a new chapter was added to the early history of the human race. The ape-man of Java comes to light at a more fortunate time, when zeal for exploration is so great that the discovery of additional remains may be expected at no distant day. That still other intermediate forms will eventually be brought to light no one familiar with the subject can doubt. Nearly twenty years ago, the writer of the present review placed on record his belief that such missing links existed, and should be looked for in the caves and later Tertiary of Africa, which he then regarded as the most promising field for exploration in the Old World. The first announcement, however, has come from the East, where large anthropoid apes also survive, and where their ancestors were doubtless entombed under circumstances favorable to early discovery. The tropical regions of both Asia and Africa still offer most inviting fields to ambitious explorers.

Yale University, New Haven, Conn., January 21, 1895.


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Figure 1.—P. Cranium of Pithecanthropus erectus, 1/6.

Hs. Skull of Hylobates syndactylus, 1/3 (After Dubois.)

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The American journal of science, series 3, volume 49, 0535b.jpg

Figure 1.—P. Left femur of Pithecanthropus erectus, 1/6.

H. Left femur of man, 1/6. a, front view; b, exterior view. (After Dubois.)

  1. Pithecanthropus erectus. Eine menschenaehnliche Uebergangsform aus Java. Von Eug. Dubois, Militairarzt der niederlaendisch-indischen Armee. Mit zwei Tafeln und drei in den text gedruckten Figuren. 4to, Batavia, 1894.
  2. The generic name used (Pithecanthropus) has already been employed by Haeckel, in 1868, for a hypothetical form, which walked erect, and had a greater intellectual development than the anthropoid apes, but did not possess the faculty of speech.