Ngandong Homo erectus

Ngandong village

Between September 1931 and November 1933 the Dutch Geological Survey conducted excavations in the upper terrace (20 metre terrace) of the Solo River near Ngandong, Java (Santa Luca 1980). These excavations uncovered a large faunal sample, including the cranial vaults of 11 hominins. Many of the hominin crania were collected before it was clear that they belonged to and their precise stratigraphic position remains unknown. However, others were identified, photographed and recorded in situ. The geological age of the Ngandong crania has remained uncertain, with dates ranging from the mid to late Pleistocene. Initially assigned to a new species, Homo soloensis, by Oppenoorth (1932), the Ngandong crania are now widely accepted as belonging to H. erectus, sharing a suit of anatomical features with the crania from the other Javan sites of Sangiran and Sambungmachan (Santa Luca, 1980; Rightmire, 1990; Baba et al., 2003; Anton 2003; Wood, 2011).

In common with the other Javan H. erectus localities, the dating of Ngandong is problematic. The depositional history of the site appears to be complex, with the river terrace deposits containing fauna of mixed ages (Westaway et al., 2007). The site was originally thought to be of lower-middle Pleistocene age, but ESR, Ar/Ar and U-series dates have provided conflicting results (Swisher et al., 1996; Indriati et al., 2011). In 1996 Swisher and colleagues reported ESR and U-series dates for both Sambungmacan and Nagandong (Santa Luca, 1980) of 27-53 ka, indicating the post-Toba survival of H. erectus in Java and the overlap of H. erectus and H. sapiens populations in Asia. One of the implications of this remarkably young date, was that it was extremely unlikely that Javan H. erectus was ancestral to Australasian H. sapiens, as claimed in the multiregional model (Thorne and Wolpoff, 1981) as anatomically modern H. sapiens were known to be in the region at 40-50 ka (Lake Mungo and Niah Cave). There was simply too little time for Java H. erectus to have evolved into modern human form, and the genetic (Rasmussen, et al., 2011), behavioural and hominin fossil (Herto, Aduma and Klassies River Mouth) evidence indicated that African H. sapiens predated Sambungmacan by ~100 ka (White et al. 2003; Haile-Selassie et al., 2004; Rightmire and Deacon, 1991).


Ngandong 11 Ngandong 11 frontal
Ngandong 11 Ngandong 11
ngandong 9
ngandong 6
Ngandong 9 Ngandong 6

The mammalian biostratigraphy of Java is divided into seven faunal stages, with the second youngest stage, the Panung fauna, representing the arrival of numerous extant southeast Asian species, including Elephas maximus (Asian elephant) and Helarctos malayanus (Sun Bear) (Westaway et al., 2007). The presence of rainforest dependent species, like Pongo pygmaeus (Orangutan), indicating wetter and warmer conditions than previously.  Westaway et al. (2007) reported on the dating of the Javan Panung rainforest fauna, with a range of 158-115 ka based on luminescence and TL dating. They argue that the Ngandong hominins are from older, pre-Punung, deposits. Most recently, Indriati et al. (2011) have reported new 40Ar/39Ar, ESR and U-series dates for Ngandong, Sambungmacan and the faunal site of Jigar. They argue that the different dating methods indicate an age in the range of 546-612 ka, placing these three sites in the Middle Pleistocene and significantly older than Swisher et al. (1996) previous estimate. However, they caution that the ESR/U-series date that complies with all modeling criteria is ~143 ka, still considerably older than the 1996 estimate of 27-53 ka. While the new estimates are more consistent with what you would expect from Sangiran, I am not certain that any of them provide an accurate age, or range of ages, for either Sambungmacan or Ngandong. The precise relationship between the depositional history of these deposits and the fossils that they contain remains unknown, and direct methods of dating fossils of this age are problematic (Yokoyama et al. 2008).

When the Japanese army, occupied Java during WWII, GHR von Koenigswald arranged for the Ngandong fossils to be removed from Indonesia. After the war, when von Koenigswald worked at the American Museum of Natural History, he arranged for Franz Wiedenreich to undertake a comprehensive description of the crania. Weidenreich’s unexpected death in 1948 meant that this project was not completed, with a shortened monograph published posthumously (Weidenreich, 1951). Subsequently, when von Koenigswald accepted an appointment at the University of Utrecht, the crania moved with him, and later followed him to a new position at the Naturmuseum und Forschunginstitut Senckenburg in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1976, the Ngandong fossils were returned to Indonesia where they are currently curated at the University Gadja Mada. During 1974-1975, with the support of von Koenigswald, A.P. Santa Luca, while a graduate student at Harvard University, was able to complete a morphological and metrical comparison of the Ngandong hominins, which was published as a monograph (Santa Luca, 1980). Santa Luca’s (1980) comparative analysis emphasizing that these hominins belonged to the species Homo erectus. This conclusion has been supported by the majority of researchers considering this collection over the last 30 years (Rightmire 1993; Anton 2003; Wood, 2011).


floresiensis and erectu data craniometric data for LB1 H. floresiensis, H. erectus and H. habilis



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Swisher, C.C., Rink, W.J., Anton, S.C., Schwarcz, H.P., Curtis, G.H., Suprijo, A., Widiasmoro, 1996. Latest Homo erectus of Java: Potential contemporaneity with Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia. Science 274, 1870-1874.

Thorne, A.G., Wolpoff, M.H., 1981. Regional continuity in Australian Pleistocene hominid evolution. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 55, 337-349.

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Wood, B.A., 2011. Blackwell encyclopedia of human evolution. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K.

Yokoyama, Y., Jacob, T., Falguères, C., Sémah, F., 1998. Direct dating of Homo erectus skulls of Solo Man in Java by non-destructive gamma-ray spectometry (Abstract). in: Raath, M.A., Soodyall, H., Barkhan, D., Kuykendall, K.L., Tobias, P.V. (Eds.), Abstracts of Contributions to the Dual Congress 1998 (The International Association for the Study of Human Palaeontology and the International Association of Human Biologists). Organising Committee of Dual Congress, Sun City, South Africa.

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