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University of Iowa News Release


July 28, 2010

Photo: Russ Ciochon (left), Frank Huffman, Yahdi Zaim and Art Bettis stand in an excavation pit at Ngandong. Photo Credit: Maija E. Sipola.

UI anthropologist describes early human dig site in Nature News story

A University of Iowa anthropologist and his colleagues are featured in the July 28 online edition of Nature News discussing their latest dig to determine the geological source and precise age of the remains of Homo erectus on the island of Java. Homo erectus is a distinct species of early man that lived in Java between about 1.6 million and 50,000 years ago, or perhaps more recently.

Nature News is a publication of the journal Nature. A Q&A about the dig can be found at

Russell L. Ciochon (sha-HAN), professor of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, led the large-scale excavation for Homo erectus remains at Ngandong, Java, for 24 days during July. The interdisciplinary U.S. team included UI associate professor of geoscience Arthur Bettis, UI anthropology graduate student Shelby Putt of Fort Wayne, Ind., UI geoscience graduate student Maija Sipola of Babbitt, Minn., and research faculty from the University of Texas and Rutgers University.

What they found at the site is expected to advance scientists' understanding of the evolution and adaptations of early Asian humans.

Ciochon said the team recovered more than 800 fossils from a bone bed and the excavations revealed details on sediments at the site telling how the bone bed was created.

"The site's geology and the circumstances of burial of the bone bed will provide crucial information to evaluate the dating and other contentious issues surrounding the Ngandong human remains," he said.

Living approximately 50,000 years ago during the last portion of the Ice Age, Homo erectus fossils at Ngandong represent a surviving relic population on the island of Java. Other early humans in Asia that date to this same time range are our own species, Homo sapiens (China and Australia), and the 'hobbit' (Homo floresiensis), an island dwarf survivor on the isolated island of Flores, east of Java.

The excavation site itself dates to the 1930s, when Homo erectus fossils and 25,000 vertebrate remains were first found at Ngandong along the shores of the Solo River in Java. Although it is one of the largest sites of Homo erectus bones, the exact age of the fossils remains in doubt, with the result that the fossils may or may not be evidence of one of the last occurrences of the species.

Ciochon's team returned to the site some 80 years later, along with the original Dutch survey documents to attempt to answer some of the questions about the age of the fossils and their geological source.

Ciochon said that it was exciting to relive history by opening the excavation pits and observing the boundaries of the original excavations and the untouched bone beds -- sites not seen since the 1930s.

The dig was funded by a $35,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York.

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