Life

Tracing man's origins in
Sangiran, Pacitan


Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Remember The Flintstones? That popular 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon show featuring the stone-age couple Fred and Wilma Flintstone tells about modern man's great curiosity with their forebears. What did they look like? How did they live? What food did they eat?

All that and more are slowly being reconstructed thanks to science, technology and rich archaeological sites such as those around Sangiran, Central Java.

Steven Spielberg may be able to recreate a whole fictional Jurassic Park -- Jurassic being a period beginning some 210 million years ago and lasting for 70 million years -- on an island off the coast of Costa Rica.

In fact a real life prehistoric park exists right here in Indonesia.

Sangiran, a region just 15 kilometers north of Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, is rich in archaeological finds that could unlock the secrets of our ancestors.

Dubbed Homo erectus Park by the Minister of Culture and Tourism I Gede Ardika, Sangiran became famous after human fossils closely resembling the Pithecanthropus erectus (upright ape-man) were unearthed at the site by German geologist and paleontologist, Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald, in 1934.

The first Pithecanthropus fossil, now known as Homo erectus, was first discovered about 40 years before by Dutch doctor Eugene Dubois in the gravel of the Solo River near Trinil in Central Java. Dubois's find was dated at around 1 million to 700,000 years.

The find confirmed Alfred Russel Wallace's theory that the earliest forms of human existence should be found in the tropical zones of the world.

Sangiran's uniqueness lies in its geology. Originally a dome created millions of years ago through tectonic uplifts, it then eroded exposing beds within the volcanic dome rich in archaeological finds.

During his research in the area von Koenigswald discovered the remains of six individuals as well as numerous teeth at Sangiran, and later excavations unearthed the remains of more than 60 individuals, constituting about 65 percent of all the hominid fossils found in Indonesia and more than half of all Homo erectus finds in the world.

In 1996, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Sangiran as one of the World Heritage sites important to the understanding of human evolution.

Knowing what our ancestors look like, however, only reveals a small part of the puzzle, and scientists are still striving to uncover more evidence as to how they lived.

A museum at the Krikilan village, Sragen regency, Central Java, exhibits many of the archaeological finds found at Sangiran and showcased a Homo erectus exhibit depicting an estimation of what it was like at the time when these ancestors lived.

The many finds around the Bengawan Solo river and its tributaries brought much attention to the area believed to be inhabited by early humans.

In the book Gunung Sewu in Prehistoric Times (edited by Truman Simanjuntak), John N. Miksic of the National University of Singapore wrote by way of a preface that von Koenigswald explored the mountains in southern Java -- the Sewu mountains -- where the source of the Solo River rises, and discovered stone tools in the valley of the Baksoko, a tributary of the Solo River.

""He named these tools Pacitanian, after the nearby town on the south coast of Java,"" Miksic wrote.

Further explorations in the area, now belonging to the East Java province, discovered numerous karstic caves dating back to millions of years ago, some known to be the dwelling of early humans.

These caves include the Song Terus and Tabuhan in the Pacitan regency, which have been the site of a joint excavation by the National Center for Archaeological Research and France's Musum National d'Histoire Naturelle for many years.

Today, the barren area of the Sewu Mountain is perhaps the poorest on Java, but according to Miksic, during the prehistoric era the area was ideal for habitation.

The caves which developed in the limestone outcrops would have provided shelter, particularly during the cold times of the Pleistocene, and the rugged topography would have created many micro-environments, from which a wide variety of wild foods could have been acquired, he said.

""As long as the human population was not too dense, and did not employ destructive means of subsistence, small communities could have enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle here in prehistory,"" Miksic said in the book.

French archaeologist Franois Smah from the Musum National d'Histoire Naturelle said the findings in the caves -- including one of a ring of stones believed to be a fireplace -- the Song Terus was estimated to represent the oldest cave-habitation site in South East Asia, originating 45,000 years ago.

The research in Song Terus and the surrounding caves aims, among other things, to find the link between the Homo erectus found in Sangiran with the newer species of prehistoric human, Homo sapiens.

""The latest Sangiran culture we found was from 750,000 years ago, so we had to look elsewhere to find a link with modern humans. We hope to find the link at Song Terus where the earliest so far found was from 200,000 years ago,"" Truman said.

Controversy remains about whether the two species of humans lived analogously, with Homo erectus dying out through natural selection, or whether sapiens evolved from erectus.

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