In the 1930s, paleontologist Gustav von Koenigswald was looking for possible human ancestral fossils on the Indonesian island of Java. He was led there because forty years before, another paleontologist, Eugene Dubois, had found a tooth, thighbone, and skull cap of what he claimed to be the missing link between apes and humans. Whereas the colonial government had assigned convicts to help Dubois excavate the remains of what was to become known as Java Man, von Koenigswald had to hire local natives to help dig.

Slide2The photograph shows several rather intact skulls on von Koenigswald’s desk–reconstructions based on limited fragments that his team had turned up. Unfortunately too late, von Koenigswald discovered that the recovered fossil pieces were more fragmented than they had to be.

Von Koenigswald knew that the Javanese were quite superstitious and disliked associating with human bones, which could be subverted for the purposes of witchcraft. To incentivize local folk to help him, von Koenigswald showed them what he was looking for and offered to pay them ten cents for every piece of skull that they found. In von Koenigswald’s own words:

That was a lot of money, for an ordinary tooth brought in only ½ cent or 1 cent. We had to keep the price so low because we were compelled to pay cash for every find; for when a Javanese had found three teeth he just wouldn’t collect any more until these three teeth have been sold. Consequently we were forced to buy an enormous mass of broken and worthless dental remains and throw them away in Bandung—if we had left them at Sangiran they would have been offered to us for sale again and again!

Cautiously we began to hunt through the hill-side foot by foot, and soon the first fragments of skull did really come to light. Unfortunately, they were extremely small: too late I realized that my opportunist brown friends were breaking up the larger pieces behind my back, in order to get a bigger bonus.

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von Koenigswald, GHR: Meeting Prehistoric Man, London, Thames and Hudson, 1956, pgs 95-97

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4 thoughts on “Be careful what you ask for, paleontology style

    1. Hi Alan,
      Right. Somebody who has the disposition to sift gravel in the sun all summer is probably not well suited for striking astute business deals.
      Best wishes, Roy

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