“Pithecanthropus” Goes to Paris

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A restoration of the skull of “Pithecanthropuserectus by Manonvrier.

Pithecanthropuserectus, described by the Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois, was an immediate sensation. Known from a skullcap, a femur, and a tooth discovered on the island of Java, it was the first fossil that could be regarded as an “intermediate type” between humans and apes (even if there was some debate about whether all the parts Dubois had found really went together). In later years “Java Man” would become more popularly represented by sculpted busts of our prehistoric relative, but one of the earliest full restorations was presented in 1900 at the Paris Universal Exposition.

Part of the festivities included a meeting of the Congress of Archaeology and Prehistoric Anthropology, an outline of which was later printed in the Report of the Commissioner-general for the United States about the exposition. It is the only record of the event I have been able to find. Unfortunately it does not include an image of Dubois’ full restoration, but the sculpture did receive some comment from the conference attendees;

Dr. L. Manonvrier: “Pithecanthropus erectus.” Dr. Manouvrier premised his remarks with the statement that the reconstitution of the pithecanthropus at the Exposition, made by Dr. Du Bois, met his entire approbation, as, in fact, the first essay in that direction had been made by himself. The recent discovery of a third tooth and a fragment of jawbone from the same animal or kind of animal demonstrates that the hypothesis is correct. Dr. Manouvrier gave expression concerning further details of the reconstitution–those pertaining to the indo-cranienne imprints of the third frontal circonvolution, the insertion of the femur of the grand adducteur muscle, and the climbing ability of the pithecanthropus, arising from the simian form of the inferior members.He said he did not intend by any criticism of Dr. Du Bois, or difference with his conclusions, to diminish in any degree the importance of his discovery made in Java.

In other words, Manovrier focused on details of the brain, femur, and overall body form to get at the question of whether “Pithecanthropus” more like our species or more like an ape. Such questions surrounded the fossils from the beginning. Some thought the skullcap was like that of an ape while the femur was unquestionably like ours, but without the rest of the skeleton it was hard to tell whether or not they really went together. (Similar questions about mix-and-match parts surrounded the discovery of another controversial fossil, “Piltdown Man”, which turned out to be a hoax. In the case of “Java Man” the bones really did go together, and are today known as representatives of Homo erectus.)

That is why I hoped that the report would include an illustration. Dubois revised his ideas about “Pithecanthropus” during the course of his study, later casting it as a being akin to a giant gibbon (but still our ancestor). It would have been interesting to see how he envisioned the hominin early on in his study of its bones. I imagine that there must be some photo or illustration somewhere (or perhaps even the original restoration), but for the moment the trail seems to have run cold.