Java Man and the Politics of Natural History: An object biography

C.A. Drieënhuizen, Fenneke Sysling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Natural history museums have long escaped postcolonial or decolonial scrutiny; their specimens were and are usually presented as part of the natural world, containing only biological or geological information. However, their collections, like those of other museums, are rooted in colonial practices and thinking. In this article, we sketch a political and decolonial biography of ‘Java Man’, the fossilized remains of a Homo erectus specimen, housed in Naturalis, the Natural History Museum, in the Netherlands. We describe the context of Dutch colonialism and the role of indigenous knowledge and activity in the discovery of Java Man. We also follow Java Man to the Netherlands, where it became a contested specimen and part of a discussion about repatriation. This article argues that the fossils of Java Man and their meanings are products of ‘creolized’ knowledge systems produced by Empire and sites of competing national and disciplinary histories and identities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)290-311
Number of pages22
JournalBijdragen tot de Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jul 2021


  • Java Man
  • natural history museums
  • object biography
  • repatriation


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