Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 8:55 EDT

Sangiran: Man, Culture, and Environment in Pleistocene Times: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Sangiran, Solo- Indonesia, 21-24 September 1998

November 28, 2004

Sangiran: Man, Culture, and Environment in Pleistocene Times: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Sangiran, Solo- Indonesia, 21-24 September 1998. Truman Simanjuntak, Bagyo Prasctyo, and Retno Handini, eds. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia. 442 pp. 78 b/w photographs; 10 tables; bibliography. Softcover. ISBN 979-464- 382-7.

Sangiran, a truncated dome of PlioPleistocene sediments in the Solo Depression of Central Java, is a prolific source of fossils, which span about one million years and include the majority of the world’s Homo erectus finds. The site is rightly listed with the World Heritage as an area of great geological, paleontological, and archaeological significance.

There has been a long history of scientific work at Sangiran beginning in 1893 with the visit of Eugene Dubois, who had just previously found the type specimen uf Pithecanthropous (now Homo) erectus at tlio nearby site of Trinil on the Solo River. Dut the person who really put Sangiran on the map was Ralph von Koenigswald, who between 194 and the coming of the second World War in 1941, found the first Middle Pleistocene hominid remains and associated stone artifacts, used fossils from Sangiran to help describe the biostratigraphic sequence for Java, and was the first to apply the Kahbeng, Pucangang, Grenzbank, Kabuh, and Notopuro Stratigraphie sequence to the site.

Since then, many prominent researchers have worked at Sangiran right up to the present day. Jacob, Soejono, and Sartono, for instance, have all made significant contributions, as have many younger generation researchers, including Fachrocl Aziz, Hisao ISaba, Tony Djubiantono, Francois Semah, Anne-Marie Semah, Truman Simanjuntak, and Harry Widianto, to name just a few. Many of these have authored papers in this volume, which resulted from an International Colloquium on Sangiran held in Solo, Java on 21-24 September 1998. The aim of the International Colloquium, organized by the Indonesian National Research Centre of Archaeology, was to make Sangiran better known, to take stock of research results from a range of disciplines, and to provide a platform for further work.

The book comprises thirty papers divided into seven sections: Introduction, Early Man, Culture, Environment, Dating, Site Conservation and Museum Management, and Research Perspective. The papers range from general syntheses to very specific descriptions of individual finds. It is the former that are particularly useful. For instance, Harry Widianto’s description of the morphological characteristics of Indonesian Homo emr(M3 and how these change over time includes a tabulation of all major Homo frc(fn.s finds up to that time, as well as information on stratigraphie context and evolutionary implications. It has long been known that the Indonesian H. crrcfw.; sequence is characterized by an increase in cranial capacity, more rounded contour, and decreased robusticity over time, but there is a major advantage in seeing the relevant evidence laid out so clearly and authoritatively. Similarly, the summary by Franois Semah, Anne-Marie Scmah, and Tony Djubiantono-of the sedimentary and paleoenvironniental history of the region, as well as at different sites, integrates a wealth of information from multiplet disciplines. In fact, this paper exemplifies the strength, in fact the necessity, for a multidisciplinary approach when dealing with the complexities of landscape transformation, taphonorny, and their archaeological implications over such a time depth-but is it correct, as they claim (p. 202), that at Kedung Cumpleng, a conglomerate bed within the blue clays of the Kalibeng Facies contains mammal fossils and artifacts?

Although most of the information presented in overviews has appeared previously-for instance, the revised faunal sequence for Java, as outlined by Fachroel Aziz and the chapter on paleomagnetic dating by Masayuki Hyodo-having it all in a single reference source makes access much easier and allows for comparison between different lines of evidence. It is also useful to see differences of factual presentation and interpretation, some of which, though, could have been sorted out during the colloquium (or by the editors?). Dates given by Widiasmoro, for the Kabuh Facies, for instance, do not fit well with dates given elsewhere in the book-an important difference since this unit has yielded the majority of fossil hominid remains at Sangiran.

Other papers are concerned with evidence from areas far removed from Sangiran, but provide a wider Australasian context. Zuraina Majid, for instance, describes Pleistocene sites in the Lenggong Valley region of Peninsula Malaysia, while Mokhtar Saidin describes the paleoenvironments of these and the Tingkayu sites of Sabah. There is also one Australian contribution: David Bulbeck presents the results of his quantitative analysis of cranial measurements of Australian Pleistocene finds, as well as some of the earliest modern human finds from Africa. he concludes that there was enough variability in the African material to account for all variation in Australian Pleistocene crania; that the first modern humans in the region (as characterized by Mungo 1 and 3 and the Deep Skull at Niah Cave in Sarawak) were relatively gracile and small, and that a massive increase in robusticity (as shown by WLH 50) was a local Australian adaptation to the harsh climatic conditions of the Late Glacial Maximum. If this is correct, then the clear implication is that the Indonesian H. erectus sequence was an evolutionary dead end with no relation to the rugged individuals from Kow Swamp. However, problems with dating specimens mean that Bulbeck is unable to discount the possibility that there were two migrations of modern humans into the region, an early robust population with possible input from the Indonesian H. erectus lineage, followed by the arrival of a gracile. As with most fundamental issues in archaeology, the core of the problem is dating.

Conservation and management issues for the Sangiran site are also comprehensively dealt with. The Sangiran Prehistoric Site Museum was constmcted in 1983 and the area was listed with the World Heritage in 1996, but there is a continuing need to identify research, infrastructure, educational, and ecotourism priorities, as outlined in papers by Harry Untoro Drajat, Hasan Ambary, Tri Hatmadji and RusmuHa, and Luthfi Arisianto. They make the case that involving local people in aspects of site management and research is crucial for ensuring long-term protection of the Sangiran and its contents. This is particularly so in these economically oppressed times, as clearly demonstrated in Boedhihartono’s description of finding a H. erectus skull for sale in an antique shop in Jakarta. This specimen (Sambungmacan 3) was subsequently illegally taken to America before being retrieved by Jacob, and is now in the collections of the Laboratory of Bioanthropology and Paleoanthropology Gadjah Madah University (Marquez et al. 2001). Presumably, given the strong economic temptation, other early hominid finds have been sold to private collectors, not returned and thereby lost to science.

For me the highlight of the volume is the reporting of stone artifacts at Ngebung in stratigraphie context with hominid remains from the Pucangan, Grenbank, and Kabuh layers, and dated to at least 800,000 BP. These and similar finds from Ngledok, Dayu, and Kcdung Cumpleng confirm [he discoveries made by von Koenigswald in 1934. Claims that stone artifacts have not been found in association with Indonesian H. frrffHi, and that the species may, therefore, have been ‘acultural,’ have always been taphonomically suspect (e.g., Dowdier 1993). They can now be properly laid to rest. It is also significant that the earliest stone artifacts yet discovered in Java, a continental island with periodic land bridges to the Southeast Asian mainland, are about the same age as the earliest stone artifacts excavated in the Soa Basin of Flores, a Wallacean island which never had land connections with the Asian or Australian continental areas (Morwood et al. 1999; O’Sullivan et al. 2001). Is a ‘Fast Train’ model for initial homimd colonization of the Indonesian archipelago most appropriate, and what are the implications for the cognitive and technological capacities of H. erectus?

On the down side, it is true that the papers are of variable standard; that one has to sift through the volume to identify sections and points of real value; and that there is a lot of repetition with different papers describing and redescribing the general stratigraphie sequence, the history of research, etc. And there are those annoying small-time points of inconsistency, which undermine big-time credibility. For instance, has Sangiran yielded the remains of 70 H. erectus individuals representing 75 percent of the world total (Widianto), or about 60 individuals representing over SO percent of world total (Simanjuntak), or 50 individuals representing 65 percent of world total (Tri Hatmadji and Rusmulia)? Hut this is nit-picking. Overall, the colloquium and the resulting proceedin\gs have succeeded in all their aims-and the organizers and editors are to be congratulated.

To conclude, this book, the first comprehensive publication on Sangiran, supplements and updates previous publications on early hominid sites in Indonesia (e.g., Franzen 1994; Watanabe and Kadar 1985), and fits well with the more recent synthesis on the archaeology of the adjacent Gunung Sewu region in the Southern Mountains (Simanjuntak 2002). It is an essential (and very reasonably priced) purchase for anyone interested in Indonesian or early hominid archaeology.



1993 Sunda and Sahul: A 30 Kyr culture area, in SaImI in Review. 60-70, cd. M. A. Smith et al. Prehistory Dept., R. S. Pac. S., Australian National University.


1994 100 Years of Pithecanthropus: The Homo Erectns Problem. Frankfurt: Courier Forschungsinstitut Scnckcnbcrg.


2001 New fossil hominid calvaria from Indonesia-Sanibungmacan 3. The Anatomical Record 262: 344-368.

MoRwooD, M. J., F. Aziz, P. O’SullivAN, NASRUDDIN, D. R. HOBBS, AND A. RAZA

1999 Archaeological and palaeontological research in central Flores, east Indonesia: Results of fieldwork, 1997-98. Antiquity 73(280): 273-286.


2001 Archaeological implications of the geology and chronology of the Soa Basin, Flores, Indonesia. Geology 29(7): 607-610.


2002 Guning Sewu in Prehistoric Times. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.


1985 Quaternary Geology of the Hominid Fossil Bearing formations in Java. Bandung: Geological Research and Development Centre.

Reviewed by MIKE MORWOOD, School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of New England, Australia

Copyright University of Hawaii Press Fall 2004