Fossil Javanese animal research


This video about the discovery of Pithecanthropus is called Trinil 1.

This video is Trinil 2.

This is Trinil 3.

From Naturalis museum in the Netherlands:

On Wednesday 10 December there will be live scientific research in the exhibition Dubois, discoverer of Pithecanthropus. Palaeobiologist Dr. Christine Hertler is measuring skulls and teeth of cattle and deer, which were exhumed by Eugene Dubois.

Pithecanthropus (Homo erectus), and the deer and cattle, lived about a million year ago in Java, Indonesia.

The discoverer of Pithecanthropus, Dr Eugene Dubois, was born in 1858 in the Netherlands; the exhibition commemorates that he was born 150 years ago.

He joined the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia as a doctor; because he thought he would be able to find fossil human ancestors in Java. The colonial authorities provided him with two sergeants and Indonesian forced labourers for his excavations around Trinil in East Java.

During his research, which started in the late nineteenth century, Eugene Dubois found about 40,000 Pleistocene animal fossils. Today, they are in the Naturalis collection.

For this exhibition, only a small part of them could be on show.

They include many mammals. Some of them now extinct species, some of them species still alive today. Stegodon trigonocephalus is a now extinct elephant species. Only a few Javanese rhinos live in West Java today. Then, that species lived also in East Java.

Hexaprotodon sivalensis soloensis is a now extinct relative of the hippopotamus. The small rat, Rattus trinilensis, was also part of the East Javanese Pleistocene fauna. Like the tapir, Tapirus indicus, still alive. The pig species Sus brachygnathus is extinct by now. Like the antelope species Duboisia santeng.

There were birds as well, including Tadorna tadornoides, the Australian shelduck. And the red-breasted goose. And the green peafowl.

According to Dr Hertler, comparatively few reptile fossils have been found in East Java, and not much research has been done on them. At the exhibition was a fragment of a monitor lizard, Varanus, fossil; of which it was not clear to which species it belonged. There were bones of the crocodile Crocodilus ossifragus. Another crocodile species, Gavialis bengawanicus, also lived near Trinil.

Dr Hertler said the big riverine turtles of the genus Batagur were the most commonly found fossil reptiles. She said that even bigger turtles, Geochelone atlas, had been found more to the west in Java; as far east as Sangiran.

Ms Hertler told me that now she is studying especially bovids and cervids; a student of hers is studying carnivorous mammals of Pleistocene Java in the Leiden fossil collection. By studying skulls and teeth of deer and cattle, she may find out in what kind of environment they (and Homo erectus) lived. Was it tropical rainforest; like all of Java would be today if there would have been no clearcutting for agriculture etc.? Was it savannah? Or something in between? And: Java being a big island, maybe there were local differences?

Teeth of deer and cattle tell whether the herbivores were browsing leaves from trees, or grazing grass from the ground; or maybe some combination of both. Sizes and limbs of animals say something on whether they lived on hard, dry grassland ground; or on soft, humid forest ground.

Her hypothesis is that Homo erectus, unlike earlier hominid species, was able to live in more than one type of environment. When the earlier species lived, there were already land bridges linking Africa to other continents. Yet, they did not use them. Probably because those early hominids were tied to one type of environment in Africa. Homo erectus, being more flexible, not being tied to one type of environment any more, could travel all the way from Africa to Java.

Dr Hertler told me that that morning, many people had come to ask her questions, including a class of schoolchildren.

The most frequent deer species of the east Javan Pleistocene is Cervus lydekkeri; related to axis deer of today. Around Trinil, two other species have also been found. One of those is the slightly larger Cervus kendengensis. The small muntjac, still existing today, was there, but rarer than today, as the environment then was not as favourable for it: more tree savanna, less rainforest.

The most common fossil bovid is Bubalus palaeokarabau. Around Trinil lived the ancestor of the present banteng, Bibos palaeosondaicus. At the exhibition were also remains of Epileptobos groeneveldtii.

Dr Hertler told me that from the sizes of skulls the animals’ body mass can be reconstructed.

Are there traces of Homo erectus hunting, scavenging, or eating on the animal bones? I asked.

Unfortunately not, Ms Hertler replied. The East Javanese fossils are found in riverine deposits. If there would be any traces of hominids on those bones, that environment would delete those traces, making it highly improbable that they will be discovered there. This is unlike Africa, where it is possible to find hominid traces on animal bones.

It might be possible to find traces of hunting in caves in Java. Near Yogyakarta, there is a cave where porcupines have brought remains of other animals. Maybe we will find one where Homo erectus did something similar.

After a pre-study, about three years ago, and later studies of the “big and well organized” Dubois fossils collection, Dr Hertler had found that indeed there was a varied environment during the Pleistocene in Java, depending on place and time. Several types of environment co-existed simultaneously. And in many of those various Pleistocene places, Homo erectus fossils have been found. “We always discover new things”.

I have read about prehistoric orangutans in Java

Yes, much is uncertain about that, Ms Hertler replied. The teeth of hominids and of orangutans are very similar. So it is possible that teeth we have ascribed to Homo erectus will turn out to be orangutan teeth.

Why is most palaeontological research in Java done in the eastern part of the island? Because, Dr Hertler replied, the first Homo erectus fossils were found there. And because scientists want to find hominid fossils, which are most spectacular. Also, because West Java is more complex geologically, making the work harder.

Neanderthal genome already giving up its secrets: here.

Late Neanderthals and modern human contact in southeastern Iberia: here.

A new species of crown-antlered deer Stephanocemas (Artiodactyla, Cervidae) from the middle Miocene of Qaidam Basin, northern Tibetan Plateau, China, and a preliminary evaluation of its phylogeny: here.

First Potwarmus from the Miocene of Saudi Arabia and the early phylogeny of murines (Rodentia: Muroidea): here.

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6 thoughts on “Fossil Javanese animal research

  1. Giant prehistoric elephant unearthed

    4:24PM Tuesday Jun 09, 2009

    SYDNEY – Australian and Indonesian researchers have excavated the 200,000-year-old skeleton of a giant elephant which remained preserved in east Java thanks to its extraordinary death.

    A research team from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and Indonesia’s Geological Survey Institute was assembled in late April after a sand quarry collapse killed two workers and exposed the bones of the prehistoric elephant.

    It took the team four weeks to excavate the exposed bones adjacent to the Solo River.

    Research team member and UOW palaeontologist Gert van den Bergh said the discovery was significant for the region.

    “It is one of the most complete elephant skeletons recovered in Indonesia,” Dr van den Bergh said in a statement.

    “(It) is of an extinct species and is of enormous size – much bigger than modern-day Asian elephants, with a femur alone being 1.2 metres long.”

    Dr van den Bergh said the elephant must have suffered an uncommon demise.

    “Normally, such dead animals would have been ripped apart and eaten by carnivores,” he said.

    “But it appears that the elephant became bogged in the river shallows, perished and was quickly covered by sands – about 200,000 years ago.”

    The skeleton was excavated, encased in plaster and transported to the Geology Museum in Bandung, West Java.

    – AAP

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/animals/news/article.cfm?c_id=500834&objectid=10577413&ref=rss

    See also here.

  2. Jun 22, 11:25 PM EDT

    Indonesian elephant fossil opens window to past

    By NINIEK KARMINI
    Associated Press Writer

    BANDUNG, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian scientists are reconstructing the largest, most complete skeleton of a prehistoric giant elephant ever found in the tropics, a finding that may offer new clues into the largely mysterious origins of its modern Asian cousin.

    The prehistoric elephant is believed to have been submerged in quicksand shortly after dying on a riverbed in Java around 200,000 years ago. Its bones – almost perfectly preserved – were discovered by chance in March when an old sand quarry collapsed during monsoon rains.

    The animal stood four meters (13-feet) tall, five meters (16-feet) long and weighed more than 10 tons – closer in size to the woolly mammoth of the same period than to the great Asian mammals now on Earth.

    Animal fossils are rare in the humid, hot climate of the equator because decomposition occurs extremely quickly.

    Following a monthlong excavation, a team of seven paleontologists from the Geology Museum in Bandung, West Java, set the bones in plaster for the trip back to their office where they will be laboriously pieced back together.

    “We believe from the shape of its teeth that it was a very primitive elephant,” but little else has been verified, said paleontologist Fachroel Aziz, who is heading a 12-strong skeletal reconstruction team.

    Scientists agree it is the first time an entire prehistoric elephant skeleton has been unearthed since vertebrate fossil findings began to be recorded in Indonesia in 1863.

    “It is very uncommon to discover a fossil like this in a tropical region like Indonesia,” said Edi Sunardi, an independent expert at Indonesia’s Pajajaran University in Bandung, West Java. “It apparently was covered by volcanic sediment that protected it from high temperatures, erosion and decay.”

    The next challenge will be removing the delicate bones from their molds and joining them into a stable, upright structure, a process that experts said is already being hampered by a lack of funding, inadequate tools and poor expertise.

    Indonesia, an emerging and impoverished democracy of 235 million people, cannot afford to allocate more than a token sum to its aging museums, even for projects that have the potential to advance knowledge about the origin of key native species.

    Gert van den Berg, a researcher at Australia’s Wollongong University who helped dig up the skeleton, said tests are under way to determine its precise age and species, and that they will help provide details “about when the modern elephants evolved into what they are now.”

    About 2,000 old elephant remains have been found across the island nation over the past 150 years, but never in such good condition, Aziz said.

    “We want to exhibit it publicly because this is a spectacular discovery,” he said.

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