Eugene Dubois was a Dutch doctor and naturalist who in 1893 discovered the remains of Java Man, one of the most important finds in the history of evolutionary science.
In 1877, when Dubois entered medical school, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was the subject of controversy throughout the western world. Opponents of the theory were quick to point out that nobody had found any kind of evolutionary 'link' between humans and other primates. Therefore, they reasoned, God must have made us out of clay. In point of fact, the first Neanderthal skullcap had been found in 1856, three years before Darwin published his great book, but scientists did not realize for years what the skulls represented (and frankly, since Neanderthals are not ancestors of modern man, the debate would not have ended if they had).
While Dubois was still in school, he heard a lecture by the great German naturalist Ernst Haeckel, who was sure that a missing link had existed, and had developed theories about the creature and where it had lived. Haeckel had even gone so far as to name the species, Pithecanthropus alalus ("ape man without speech"), though no example of it had yet been found. Dubois swore that he would find (fossil evidence of) Haeckel's creature, and that in doing so, he would prove to the world that Darwin was right.
To this end, he committed himself to travel to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Why there? I have not seen a definitive explanation, but the following points probably contributed:
- Apes are found in Asia and Africa, but not in Europe or anywhere in the Americas. Therefore, a bridging species might have emerged somewhere between Africa and Asia. (Haeckel in fact extrapolated the existence of a lost island of Lemuria somewhere in the Indian Ocean where humans had evolved from Apes)
- At the time, scientists believed that Orangutans were the apes closest to man. We now know that all the African apes are closer, especially the pygmie chimpanzee (subject of the often quoted "98.5% genetic match with man" statistic. However, during the Victorian age, Orangutans were thought to differ from man only in being hairier and lacking the power of speech. Orangs are found only in Malaysia and Borneo, so it made sense to look there and nearby to find Pithecanthropus.
- The Dutch East Indies were a Dutch colony; Dubois was Dutch. It would make things easier.
Dubois was not able to convince anybody else to pay for his expedition, so he joined the Dutch Indian Army and brought his family to Sumatra in 1888. There, he had plenty of time to hunt for fossils, but he suffered terrible adventures. He got stuck in a tiger cave. He caught maleria. His workers stole all the fossils they found and sold them to Chinese merchants to be ground into nonsenical folk medicines. However, between 1891 and 1893, in Java, Dubois was able to salvage teeth, a skullcap, and a femur from something that was old, bipedal, and not human. They were clearly, in Dubois's words, from "a great, manlike ape."
Because he had found a femur and not a jaw, Dubois modified Haeckel's name, calling his find Pithecanthropus erectus ("ape man who stands erect"). He returned to Europe in 1895 and spent the next several years travelling about with the bones, speaking at conferences, making plaster molds, photos, and reconstructions, and otherwise fighting for recognition that the missing link had been found. He was by and large not successful.
Bitter, Dubois retreated into isolation for the last thirty years of his life. In these years, other, similar fossils were found in a number of locations, and anthropologists were coming to understand the early history of the human species. Java Man (ultimately reclassified as Homo erectus) fit into that story, not as a missing link between man and the apes, but as an early type of man. Dubois never accepted that conclusion, but his great work in finding Java Man, and his perseverance in spreading news of his find, make him a scientific hero nonetheless.
source: Richard Milner, the Encyclopedia of Evolution, 1990