Sunday, August 01, 2010


A recent excavation led by Unirversity of Iowa anthropology Professor Russell Ciochon may lead to discoveries of human origins. Ciochon and his team visited Ngandong, Java, Indonesia, to continue the work of a 1930s Dutch archaeological expedition.

The previous research revealed the home of a relative to modern humans, Homo erectus, but World War II interrupted that research, and the maps and notes disappeared — until now. Frank Huffman, a geo-archaeologist at the University of Texas-Austin, stumbled upon the maps while doing research in the Netherlands.

"He came across these maps and realized what they were," said Art Bettis, a UI associate professor of geoscience who went on the excavation. "It was one of those things where people had seen them over and over, but no one had really known what they were looking at. But the whole thing was the original Dutch documents." The UI team also had researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Texas-Austin, and the Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia.

The earliest conclusions are that the Ngandong site holds fossil evidence of the youngest Homo erectus group known in the world. This Java Homo erectus dates much later than those of Africa.

"With the old maps and photographs in hand, we have now re-exposed the original Homo erectus-bearing sequence for the first time since the 1930s," Ciochon wrote in an e-mail. "The Ngandong site is about the size of a football field, yet our survey maps show that only small areas remain un-excavated. We are concentrating our research efforts in these areas."

"There's a big debate on when our ancestors first left Africa, and much of this depends on dating of Homo erectus, particularly in the Far East," said James Enloe, an associate professor anthropology. "This will help us understand the ecological needs of the people to move out of Africa."

Now, back at their home universities, the scientists must analyze the some 800 fossils they brought back. From the types of animals they found, they know Homo erectus most likely lived in a grassy, woodland area.

But the questions of when they went extinct and the reasons for their disappearance remain.

For the interview with Professor Ciochon in Nature see


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