Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Saturday, 21 November 2009

Hunting for the home of Indonesia's Java Man

This year has seen the discovery in Ethiopia of Ardi, the fossil skeleton believed to be the oldest human relative. But long before Ardi came Java Man, who was unearthed in the Indonesian village of Sangiran 120 years ago. Christine Finn has been on a quest to find the origins of this paleo-celebrity.

An Ojek - an  Indonesian motorcycle taxi
The search for Java Man began on an Indonesian motorcycle taxi

Sunday afternoon in Solo, also known as Surakarta, and I had a date with Java Man.

"Sangiran? Museum?" the taxi driver asked me.

And so my first ever ride on a motorbike taxi began after the broadly-smiling driver convinced me an "ojek" was the only way to get there.

We wove through the hooting, revving, steaming Solo traffic along a road lined with motorbike parts and benzine stalls; the fuel funnelled from glass jars straight into the tanks. A refuelling stop as much as the warung or food stands dispensing spicy sata and nasi goreng.

Java Man. The name sounds like a 1970s men's aftershave. One possibly not much used because the face, lovingly reconstructed by the palaeontologists, suggested he was no great shaver.

He also had small, deep-set eyes and an enormous jaw.

But Java Man was still a hero when he surfaced at the end of the 19th Century: Pithecanthropus erectus, an early contender for the title of missing link between the first upright hominids and modern humans.

Fossil finds

The ojek roared into the countryside, turning off to a small village and the museum, its smart entrance overarched by a pair of mammoth tusks.

"I wait?" said Mr Ojek. The museum was small, and all of the text was in Indonesian, which I could not read. We would be back in Solo within an hour.

Televisual representation of Homo erectus, BBC
Java fossils were among the first known specimens of Homo erectus

A life-size diorama showed Java Man and his family.

He was pure Hollywood alpha male, all that was missing was a gold medallion.

He had a full complement of black body hair. As did Java Woman.

Charles Darwin's face peered out from a glass case, beside two names most identified with the ancient hominid: Eugene Dubois, the Dutch man who came across the top of his skull on the riverbank at nearby Trinil in 1891, and Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleoanthropologist, drawn to Sangiran in the 1930s by its rich fossil finds, which emerged especially after it had been raining heavily.

Koenigswald proved very popular with the locals who were soon earning money from all the fossils they brought to his door, some of which were the remains of ancient humans.

And all this fitted local legend.

A hero from Sangiran, an important archaeological excavation area in Java, was said to have once used supernatural powers to fight off marauding giants.

The resulting heap of corpses scattered around the village were soon concealed by a spring which gushed out of the pile.

Even today the Sangirans name their fossil finds "Balung Buto" or "Giant Bones".

There were plenty of "Balung Buto" in the museum but Java Man was not amongst them.

Treasure hunt

On a dusty shelf, I saw some plaster casts of the fragments but the originals, I discovered, were scattered in bigger museums.

This hardly thrilled my bones. But if I could not see Java Man, I could maybe see where he hung out with his family, and dip my toes in his local river.

The Ojek driver shows the map to a local
The driver recruited local help in the hunt for Java Man's river bank

I bought the museum's two most likely treasure maps: An academic report on Sangiran from 1987, written in English, which had a survey map, and a new illustrated children's guide, in Indonesian, which had photos of the landscape.

Mr Ojek was up for a challenge.

We hurtled off, and I think he was equally disappointed when we quickly found a sign which read: "Homo erectus 400 metres."

That was far too easy, I thought.

But Java Man's river bank was not to be found quite that quickly.

The sign, and others, led us round in circles.

Mr Ojek now took charge, stopping at intervals, the child's guide in hand, showing the photos to playing youngsters, villagers in their front yards, or fuelling their bikes.

The arms and fingers pointed in all directions.

So I went by foot alongside paddy fields to ask the farmers.

What a strange apparition, I thought as I walked - not Mr Ojek wielding his incongruous kids' book, but me, another Sangiran giant, melting in my bike helmet.

In the seeming middle-of-nowhere, we found a monumental, but rather neglected, concrete marker to another even earlier hominid, Meganthropus paleojavanicus, who lived there around 1.5 million years ago.

But it was all, it has to be said, a bit of an anti-climax.

However, Mr Ojek had glanced again at the guide. Now he reckoned he had found the river.

Final destination

After a short bike ride we were there - on a track reaching right into the Solo river.

Two villagers washing their motorbikes at the river
The modern day Java man cuts a very different figure to his ancestor

The late afternoon light was fading, shadows were rising. It was perfect.

I walked down to the water trying to picture what it must have been like there a million years ago with the hairy Java man, his wife and Java children going about their business.

But I could not quite imagine it. The present was intruding too much.

The sight of water buffalo disporting, children splashing in the shallows and there, right in front of me, two 21st Century Java men, up to their knees in this river on a late Sunday afternoon - tenderly washing their motorbikes.

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Story by story at the programme website

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