Java Man and the Colonial Legacy of Fossil Collections

C.A. Drieënhuizen, Fenneke Sysling

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic


    This paper looks at human fossil collections in the Netherlands that were excavated in Dutch colonial Indonesia in 1891-92. The most famous specimen is what came to be called Java Man: the skullcap, molar, and thighbone of a homo erectus. It was found on the island of Java by a team led by Dutch palaeontologist Eugène Dubois, who took his finds to the Netherlands where they ended up in the Natural History Museum in Leiden. Other notable finds of early hominids in the Dutch colonies include those excavated in the 1930s on Java by G.H.R. von Koenigswald.
    Java man is one of the highlights of the Natural History Museum in Leiden. Although in the Netherlands, like in other countries, cultural objects and physical anthropology collections have been the subject of debate in recent years, Java Man and the other human fossil collections (part of which are now in the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt, Germany) have not been part of these discussions.
    This is surprising given the fact that Java Man in particular is a single, well-known object and, as we show in this paper, the fossil collections have been claimed by Indonesia several times in the past. Already in 1951, Indonesia – independent for 2 years - first specified restitution claims which included collections of fossilized human skulls. For Indonesia, these fossils were important because they were useful in the new national narrative of the Indonesian state. They were proof that Indonesia was one of the oldest inhabited islands in the world and perhaps a cradle of mankind. The fossils referred to a pre-colonial past that could be read as something that all Indonesians shared.
    The exodus of the objects, according to Indonesian politician Mohammad Yamin, symbolized scientific imperialism and harmed Indonesia’s scientific interests. Around fifteen years after the first request, Indonesian scientists such as palaeontologist Teuku Jacob continued to call for the return of the paleontological collections. Only a few objects returned informally.
    With our focus on these objects’ provenance, their long contested political ownership and their representation in the Netherlands and in Indonesia, we emphasize that fossilized remains are sites of contested histories, identities and desire. We problematize histories of collecting and knowledge that emerged in Europe, to undo what Mignolo calls the coloniality of knowledge. We also suggest that Natural History Museums should be praised if they take the initiative to re-inscribe histories and perspectives in order to provide an active space for decolonial dialogues.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages7
    Publication statusPublished - 2018
    EventPolitics of Natural History, or: How to Decolonize the Natural History Museum - Berlin, Berlin, Germany
    Duration: 6 Sept 20187 Sept 2018


    ConferencePolitics of Natural History, or: How to Decolonize the Natural History Museum


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