Unraveling the Journey of Bengawan Solo: A Tale of Discovery and Evolution

“Bengawan Solo, riwayatmu ini. Sedari dulu jadi perhatian insani….” Most readers are undoubtedly familiar with these lyrics. They are a snippet from the song “Bengawan Solo,” composed by the maestro of keroncong, Gesang Martohartono. Just as Gesang wrote, the longest river in Java has a history that stretches back for centuries. It stands as a witness to the development of human life, tracing its origins back to prehistoric times. Consequently, it has become a matter of “human attention.” The fact is that several points along this river’s course have become locations of discovery for remnants of ancient human life and culture. Among these locations are Sangiran, Sambungmacan, Trinil, and Ngandong. These sites have long served as hunting grounds for researchers of the ancient world. One of the paleoanthropologists who struck significant “prey” here was Eugene Dubois. He was the discoverer of the fossil of one of the early human species, Pithecanthropus erectus. The fossil, found in Trinil (now in the Ngawi region of East Java) in 1890, is famously referred to as the “missing link” in human evolution.

However, Dubois’ triumphant tale did not come about easily. It was the result of persistent work and a relentless quest. Before finding this fossil, Dubois encountered numerous dead ends in Sumatra. Young Marie Eugene Francois Thomas Dubois was an admirer of the Theory of Evolution, built upon the foundations laid by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. His scientific curiosity was further ignited by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s assertion that the missing link in human evolution could be found in tropical lands. “According to Haeckel, initially, humans appeared in a primitive form, Homo primigenius, preceded by what is known as the missing link,” wrote Francois Semah, Anne-Marie Semah, and Tony Djubiantono in their work “Mereka Menemukan Pulau Jawa” (1990, p. 3). This “missing link” refers to the transitional form between primitive humans and more modern ones. “Theoretically, this transitional being could be found in tropical regions where anthropoids like orangutans live,” added Francois Semah et al.

Initially, Dubois was an anatomy professor at the University of Amsterdam. After just a year of teaching, he found himself incompatible with the job. Furthermore, he was increasingly drawn to the science of human evolution. Paleoanthropological research seeking the missing link in human evolution was thriving in the late 19th century. Dubois caught the same spirit and was driven to conduct field research in tropical lands. He chose to step away from the university and enroll as a military doctor. He aimed for an assignment in the Dutch East Indies, a tropical colony of the Netherlands. Thus, in 1887, Dubois set off for the Dutch East Indies with his wife and child.

In the Dutch East Indies, Dubois initially served in Sumatra, specifically in Padang. However, he was soon transferred to Payakumbuh. It was in Payakumbuh that Dubois began his research into finding the missing link while fulfilling his duties as a doctor. Eventually, the Dutch Colonial Government freed Dubois from his daily medical duties and gave him a new task—full-time paleontological research. “The colonial government assigned him to conduct paleontological research in Sumatra and, if necessary, in Java,” explained John de Vos in “The Dubois Collection: a New Look at an Old Collection,” published in the journal Scripta Geologica (Vol. 4, 2004, p. 270). The Colonial Government entrusted him with this special task due to an article he had written in April 1888. In this article, Dubois stated his primary goal of conducting paleontological investigations in the Dutch East Indies. Surprisingly, the Colonial Government took an interest in Dubois’ work. “There was a great interest abroad in archaeological and paleontological research, while the Dutch East Indies, in this regard, practically remained unexplored. Yet, the Dutch East Indies had significant potential in this area,” wrote Bert Theunissen in “Eugene Dubois and the Ape-Man from Java: the History of the First Missing Link and its Discoverer” (1988, p. 38–39).

As a first step, Dubois focused his search on several caves around Payakumbuh. During his investigations, as per John de Vos’ research, Dubois received assistance from two soldiers from the engineering corps and at least 50 local laborers. Between 1887 and 1890, Dubois conducted excavations in Gua Lida Ajer, Sibrambang, and Djambu. From these sites, he discovered and collected numerous fossils, both animal and human. Regrettably, Dubois was dissatisfied with these findings. None of the human fossils he found displayed the transitional characteristics he was seeking. However, what Dubois did not realize at the time was that these “disappointing” fossils had significant scientific value. In 1948, eight years after Dubois’ passing, Dutch paleontologist Dirk Albert Hooijer confirmed that the hominid tooth fossil Dubois discovered actually belonged to Homo sapiens. Measurements conducted by Kira Westaway et al., detailed in “An Early Modern Human Presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago,” published in the journal Nature (2017, Vol. 548), revealed that one of the Homo sapiens tooth fossils Dubois had unearthed dated back approximately 63,000–73,000 years ago. Regarding this discovery, archaeologist Harry Truman Simanjuntak wrote in “Manusia-manusia dan Peradaban Indonesia” (2020), “This dating indicates that early modern humans had already inhabited Sumatra much earlier than previously estimated.”

Dubois continued excavations in Payakumbuh until 1889. In the same year, news arrived that B.D. van Rietschoten had successfully found a prehistoric human skull in Campurdarat, Tulungagung. This news rekindled Dubois’ hopes and shifted his focus to Java. “Thanks to that discovery and at Rietschoten’s invitation, Dubois relocated his research to Java and began excavating in Campurdarat,” Truman Simanjuntak disclosed (p. 36).