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August 7, 2013

The Search for Ancient Apes

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – One of the many fantastic things about living here in Borneo are the many scientists and scholars who come here to visit and research the wonders of this tropical island.


I am extremely fortunate to have met many of these individuals who have contributed to the body of knowledge and whose minds are much greater than my own. As I have been blessed/cursed with a deep curiosity, nosey my mother called me, now channeled from writing history about Frederick County to scribing about this astonishing world.


One of these amazing individuals is Dr. Jerry Drawhorn, a biological anthropologist from Cal State Sacramento. He is an expert on orangutan fossils among many other fields including Alfred Wallace, who will be the subject of several of my future columns.


I met Jerry a couple of years ago and we have exchanged e-mails and met with each other over dinner and extensive conversations. My wife, Suriani, cooked a delicious lamb curry as we had long conversations with friends about orangutans. Later, she called her friends and told them about her crazy American husband and his friends who talked about apes for such long period of time.


Jerry’s current exploration is searching for the caves first excavated by Eugene Dubois, the Dutchman who discovered Java Man (Homo erectus). They are located in the jungle somewhere on Sumatra Island in an area the locals call “Mountain of 1000 Caves” where there are hundreds of other caverns. Mr. Dubois shipped boxes of bones and teeth, from each of three different caves back to Holland in 1891, and Jerry made sense of the whole lot for his dissertation. Unfortunately, Mr. Dubois did not leave very good directions (“near a small village next to a river”) on where the caves were located and Jerry’s search to find them and possibly retrieve other bones, in cooperation with the Indonesian government, continues.


To put things in perspective, the orangutan was thought to evolve in the Northern Vietnam-South China region about 12-15 million years ago branching off the line that led to humans. They kept changing and migrated down the Malay Peninsula and over to Sumatra as the two were then connected.


As the animals died, their carcasses were ravaged by other animals. One of these animals, thought to be a porcupine, took the bones back to the cave and gnawed it down to powder except for the teeth whose enamel was too hard for them to break. These teeth are what Jerry is looking for.


To add to the intrigue, Jerry has also discovered that each cave, by accident of geology, represents a certain time period in orangutan evolution. From Dubois’s boxes he knows (Jerry dated them) that cave one dates from 80,000 years ago, cave two from 20,000-40,000 and cave number three a jumble. But what did Mr. Dubois miss? He only worked the area for a short time, deciding that there were no human remains in the area, moving on to Java and then his monumental find. Are there other fossil remains that could shed light on orangutan and hence human evolution? Another ancient human perchance?


Jerry is atypical of the university types I meet here. Most arrive heavily funded with a group of graduate students in tow. Jerry walks it alone spending his own money. He has hiked through steamy jungles, up sliding gravel hills, ancient foot paths and squeezes his small 60-year-old frame into small crevices on his quest. Speaking Indonesian, he has hired a few locals to help him out. At first, they were suspicious thinking no crazy white guy could possibly go to all that trouble looking for teeth. They thought he could be seeking a lost gold mine or diamonds. He has become a local around the area every summer, searching for his teeth to the great amusement of the natives.


Jerry has found two of the caves. The first was as Mr. Dubois had left it 123 years ago. The floor was neatly excavated, the dirt arranged in piles with some ancient bones of various animals still there. However, somebody had been there since Mr. Dubois left. There, neatly arranged in the back of the cave were small pyramids of unexploded hand grenades probably left over from the resistance fighting the Japanese or the war for Indonesian Independence from the Dutch. Those will have to be dealt with first before any digging can begin.


There are not many rugged individualists left in academia who travel the world without the creature comforts and the monetary support of a university, government or institution of some kind. Jerry walks it alone as a guy named Alfred Wallace did long ago.


…Life is good. . . . .


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