In 1887, a Dutch physician named Eugene Dubois set sail halfway around the world to look for the missing link. A fossilized link between humans an apes, which would prove once and for all that humans evolved. The only thing crazier than this mission was the fact that the physician actually found what he was looking for (sort of). For the first time in the history of paleoanthropology, an organized excavation aimed to find fossils of a human ancestor, and those fossils were indeed found.
In a world of few hominin fossils, scientists created of hypothetical, imagined ancestors, ones that walked upright but had small brains and couldn’t speak. These imagined creatures were not enough for Dubois, he wanted to find the real thing: fossils. Fossils were the only way to provide “direct proof…for the existence of the close tie between Man and the animal world.” But how did one go about doing that? Based on Dubois’ story, I’ve come up with a list of steps:
- Figure out where the missing link lived. Even if you’re wrong, it might still work out. Dubois studied all the existent theories on where human ancestors might have lived. Many scientists, such as Ernst Haeckel, thought that humans originated in the tropics, most likely in Asia. Today we know this is incorrect, Africa is actually the birthplace of the human lineage, however, Dubois had faith.
- Convince your country to finance the trip. Just one minor detail: money. To finance this trip, Dubois originally asked for a government subsidy but was rejected. He then requested to enlist as be a military surgeon in the colonial army. The army had presence in the East Indies, and he was approved to spend 8 years there.
- Marry an adventurous woman. Dubois was afraid his wife Anna would hate the idea of traveling to a little known colony, especially with their newborn. To his surprise, Anna was actually excited for the journey! He remembers her saying “Oh, won’t it be an adventure!”
- First look in caves. Limestone caves had yielded Neandertals in Europe–so Dubois thought this would be an ideal place to start his research. Once landing in Sumatra, Dubois sought out ideal caves and set out on his mission. Unfortunately, finding the missing link wasn’t quite as easy as he had hoped.
- Maintain patience and perseverance. By 1889, Dubois admitted to friends that things weren’t going smoothly. “Everything here has gone against me, and even with the utmost effort on my part, I have not achieved a hundredth part of what I had visualized.” He and his workers battled sicknesses and serve fevers (sometimes even resulting in deaths), the cave sites were hard to reach and often overgrown with vegetation, and even the sites he did fine yielded fossils that were too young to be the missing link. But Dubois did not give up, eventually he worked to:
- Reconfigure the plan: move to a new island. When excavations aren’t working, figure out a plan B. Not having luck with the caves of Sumatra, Dubois began to hear that people were uncovering skulls on the nearby island of Java. Dubois had also heard there was less malaria there. He decided to pick up the family once again and move the excavations to Java.
From here on out the story is well known. In 1891, after shifting away from caves, Dubois’ team made an incredible discovery on the banks of the Solo river near the village of Trinil. Here, Eugene Dubois found his missing link: a skullcap and femur he named Pithecanthropus erectus. For him, this was the missing link in that it was clearly an upright walking, smaller brained primate. The skull cap is now assigned to Homo erectus, indeed an important link in human evolution.
The whole story, however, was more complicated and problematic than this short history of the discovery suggests. Many scientists refused to accept Dubois’ Pithecanthropus as an important step in human evolution, and the femur–which was found 15 meters away from the skullcap–probably did not belong to the same individual and is instead that of a more modern human. My simplification of this crazy story is intended to show the absurdity of the fact that Dubois essentially found what he was looking for. However, the description and scientific debate that ensued afterwards is a story in and of itself. If I were to write a list of steps titled “What to do after you find the missing link,” I might include: 1. fit your data to match your hypothesis and 2. hide the fossils under your floorboards and don’t allow people to see them, but those are stories for another day.
For more on Dubois, check out Bert Theunissen’s great Eugene Dubois and the Ape-man from Java, as well as Pat Shipman’s The Man Who Found the Missing Link!