Standing in a thick tangle of brush, sweltering under the incessant glare of the Indonesian sun, I am squinting across a muddy river, trying to get a clear view of the heavily vegetated bank on the other side. I’m struck by the unexceptional feel of the spot in which I stand, a place that, as others have put it, can “scarcely be called picturesque.” Yet, this particular bend in the River Solo is a place I have imagined countless times, having read about it in textbooks and journal articles for decades. It’s a place that has taken me considerable effort to reach. Still, behind me sits a small monument reminding me I am far from the first to venture halfway around the world to stand here.
Paleoanthropologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald once said that “few who make the pilgrimage to this lonely spot on the River Solo are unaware of the significance of the remarkable inscription” that is engraved on the monument behind me. He’s right, the statement is as true today as it was when he wrote it half a century ago. Far from airports, beaches, and cities, this particular stretch of river isn’t exactly the kind of place you find yourself accidentally. I have yet to see another human since my traveling partner and I paid the entry fee and stepped out of the car. Why have some of us made such a pilgrimage to this “lonely spot?”
Though the area appears tranquil and practically deserted today, this stretch of river was once a flurry of activity. In the late nineteenth century, a team of men were busy digging deep into the bank in search of fossil human ancestors. The team, overseen by Gerard Kriele and Anthony de Winter, was funded by the Dutch government and staffed by dozens of forced laborers, often convicts, who owed a debt to the Dutch government for one reason or another. The project had been conceived by Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois, who hoped to find a fossil that was the “missing link” between humans and other apes.
The search had actually started a few years earlier in caves on the neighboring island of Sumatra but failed effort after failed effort (compounded by the high risk of malaria there) resulted in a transition to riverbanks on the island of Java. Not long after exploring such riverbanks did fossils begin appearing at this site, which is named Trinil. Conditions here were brutal. As Paul Albers and John de Vos detail in the book Through Eugène Dubois’ Eyes, “the letters of Kriele and De Winter reveal that..their circumstances were downright miserable.” As the team traveled around Java, local governors “were not always pleased to see them start working in their neighbourhood as they caused them extra work. Villagers were instructed to misinform them and throw away fossils if they found them.” The conditions were so bad that many of the forced laborers became ill, and some even died.
The project continued, however, and one day, on the banks of the River Solo, the team found something different. Kriele and de Winter often shipped off specimens to Dubois to examine, and one day they shipped off something particularly interesting.
It was October of 1891 when an interesting skullcap emerged from the damp soil. Later, a femur would be unearthed nearby, which Dubois assumed belonged to the same individual (which is a problematic and contested association to this day). Between the primitive-looking skullcap and the human-looking femur, Dubois thought that these bones represented exactly what he was looking for, a creature that was part human, but not yet entirely human. A missing link (which today is a very problematic term) in the evolutionary tree. He named it Pithecanthropus erectus, the upright ape-man, and nicknamed it Java Man. Suddenly, the site of Trinil, on the banks of the River Solo, was on the map in the study of human origins.
Much has been written about the Java Man fossils, which are now classified as Homo erectus. They were controversial and legendary all at once. They were arguably the first true fossil evidence for deep human origins. But you won’t find the specimens here near the River Solo—nor anywhere in Java for that matter. Dubois took them back to the Netherlands, where they remain today. But those of us interested in paleoanthropology’s history are still so captivated by the place that the pilgrimage is still more than worthwhile, fossils or no fossils.
There are fossils here at Trinil today—just not those of Java Man. The site was very productive overall, revealing tons of animal bones, some of which are still on display. Twenty-first-century Trinil is more than just a riverbank and the monument, it also boasts a small museum that displays some of these ancient bones. As I wander around, weaving between this little museum and the slightly janky wooden structure that provides a slightly better view of the other bank by allowing a higher (and more precarious) view over the thick overgrown vegetation, I marvel at how this is the quietest spot I have ever found in Indonesia. On the densely populated island of Java, where activity, noise, and life are constant, such tranquility is a rare treat that allows me to imagine what the area would have been like over a century ago.
Comparing the site to old pictures and passages reveals that, in some sense, the area has been untouched by time. Looking out across the river just as I’m doing today, von Koenigswald wrote over half a century ago that the view included “fields, a few houses, and in the background the dark fringe of the Kendeng Forest.” He was not impressed by the mediocre feel of Trinil, but perhaps he was not as nostalgic as I am, which is forgivable given the extra passing of time and my profession as a historian.
Desperate to get closer to the site itself across the river, even though much of it is underneath the surface of the slow moving Solo, I find a gate that breaks up the barbed wire fence and scramble down to the river’s edge. It is only then that I notice the large amount of trash that has accumulated at the site, built up on the bank, and caught in the branches of the trees that flank it. I have lived in Indonesia long enough to be familiar with trash—a problem that I maintain is not worse than in countries like my own, but simply more overt and visible, rather than the troubling alternative of hiding trash by shipping it off to these very places.
Further reading reveals that trash is nothing new for Trinil. “This Cloaca Maxima of Central Java,” as von Koenigswald called the River Solo, “carries away all the refuse of the numerous villages along its banks.” I heard a rumor that recent excavations at Trinil sometimes require multiple days of cleanup before work can begin, but such obstacles are often part of the uncontrollable nature of field sites.
As the now-midday tropical heat starts getting to me, I scramble back up the bank to return to the museum. The single, large room provides a break from the sun but not the incessant heat. Inside, cases of fossils, framed pictures of the site’s history, and casts of the Java Man bones tell the story of this historic site. The displays seem to be feeling the unrelenting tropical climate as well, paint is chipping on the walls and the reconstructions, and paper labels are withering. But the scene is magical, telling the story of the thousands of bones that emerged from this site, were once spread on Dubois’ veranda in the East Javanese city of Semarang, and have contributed to our understandings of the past.
Being here in person, it seems strange to view the site as a triumph of science and discovery, or one that celebrates Dubois. Indeed, the glorification of Dubois at all in this locale feels imprecise, because although he was responsible for conceiving of the project and funding it, he spent very little time here at all. Instead, under the harsh weight of the Indonesian heat, it is obvious that Trinil’s legacy is much more complex. It’s impossible not to be struck by the troubling history of this place, and the obvious inequality that has existed amongst the people who gathered here. Some were world-traveling scientists with colonial governments backing them, while others were imprisoned laborers, forced to dig in the tropical weather.
Though there are no longer forced laborers digging for fossils in Java, the inequality between different parts of the world still exists, of course. It is reflected in the privilege I carry as a scholar from a major institution who was able to take a train and hire a car to reach this part of Java. The villages surrounding Trinil are, like much of rural Indonesia, impoverished. As is the case across the archipelago, this area (the Ngawi Regency) hopes to attract tourism to help stimulate the local economy. Yet there is little to bring tourists in. As much as I would love to believe that historic paleoanthropological sites could somehow have enough draw to generate income for the local people, the multi-day journey it takes to get here from larger cities like Jakarta means that not many foreign tourists will ultimately visit and pump any kind of revenue into the local area.
Pondering this, I return to the monument itself.
The cryptic inscription reads “P.e. 175 m ONO 1981/93,” which stands for “Pithecanthropus erectus wurde 175 m Ostnordost von dieser Stelle gefunden in den Jahren 1891/193 (Pithecanthropous erectus was found 175 meters east-north-east of this spot in the years 1891/93). From comparing old photos, it is clear that the monument has been moved from its original position, so the precise measurements and directions of 175 east-north-east no longer ring true. Somehow, for me, that only adds to the charm.
The monument is small and understated. That is how Dubois wanted it. Instead of shouting about missing links or epic discoveries, it merely encodes a message that can only be appreciated by those who already know what it means. Which, in a way, fits this place perfectly because one wouldn’t end up at this “lonely spot on the River Solo” unless it was on purpose, to see the discovery site of Java Man.
The locale itself feels almost as contradictory as its history. The landscape viewed from the riverbank appears at first so unremarkable, yet it is absolutely exceptional. It was here that ancient hominins once roamed, and it was here the science of human origins took a big step forward towards understanding who we are as humans and how we came to be here. Appreciating it, as von Koengswald suggested, requires looking at this “peaceful landscape” with “other eyes.”
Driving away from the site on bumpy dirt roads, relieved by the car’s air-conditioning, my mind attempts to wrestle with the contradictions embedded in the soil of the home of Java Man, both historically and in the present. It is a place so special to me as a historian that it almost brought tears to my eyes to be here in person, yet its history is unquestionably problematic. It is, after all, the colonial rule that allowed for the discovery of Java Man. While Dubois is mentioned in textbooks and popular science stories, his project depended entirely on the labor of unnamed forced excavators who suffered—some unimaginably—for the find.
But that’s the thing about history, it is often precisely from the space of contradictions and discomfort that we can derive lessons. Fortunately, paleoanthropology today looks very different than it did when convicts first dug into the riverbank at Trinil—though there is still much work to be done. Since Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch over half a century ago, scientists have worked locally to build institutions, train experts, and run field sites. Repatriation of fossils has taken place for many Homo erectus specimens that now reside back in Indonesia, but resources often remain scarce, and inequality in the science remains present.
Maybe, then, a visit to this lonely spot on the River Solo requires embracing the contradictions as a reminder that scientific practice has a long way to go to overcome its history. A perspective that refuses to erase the history of colonialism and forced labor when recognizing a discovery that shed light on humans’ shared evolutionary story gives us room to learn and grow. That’s why this post reflects on the complexity of pilgrimage for me, rather than focusing strictly on Eugene Dubois and the Java Man fossils (on the latter, there is tons of great scholarship, see below). After visiting Trinil, anything else felt dishonest.
Perhaps there’s a way to use this place, in all its complexity, to continue to build a scientific future that results in further discoveries as well as equally shared resources and opportunities. If some Dutch anatomist in the 1800s can travel halfway around the world to find a fossil human ancestor and actually find one, then it seems to me that the possibilities are endless.
For further reading about Dubois and the Java man, see Pat Shipman’s The man who found the missing link; Theunissen’s, Eugène Dubois and the ape-man from Java; von Koeigswald’s Meeting prehistoric man; and Paul Albers and John De Vos’ Through Eugène Dubois’ eyes. Thanks, as always, for reading along! A huge thanks to Joël Bronner for being the organizer of this fossil tour as well as the most patient person under the Indonesian sun—on this and many other occasions.