Unlike Darwin, many evolutionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had theorized that the human family tree was rooted in Asia. Some argued that Asia’s gibbons were our closest living relatives. Others reasoned that tectonic activity and climate change in Central Asia sparked human evolution. One naturalist even proposed that human origins traced back to a lost continent that had sunk in the Indian Ocean, forcing our ancestors to relocate to Southeast Asia.
And that’s where the best contender for an early human ancestor had been found. In the 1890s, a crew led by Dutch physician-turned-anthropologist Eugène Dubois had uncovered a skullcap and thigh bone on the Indonesian island of Java. The thick skullcap had heavy brow ridges, but Dubois estimated it once held a brain that was about twice as big as an ape’s and approaching the size of a human’s. The thigh bone indicated that this Java Man, later named Homo erectus , walked upright.
A trellis or a candelabra
Long before the rise of genetics, or even the discovery of many hominin fossils, unraveling human origins was a quest to explain how the world’s different races came to be. But after the horrors of World War II, anthropologists started to question the validity of race.
“This was a real moral hinge point in the science,” Hawks says. “It was a realization that viewing things through the perspective of race was creating evils in the world.” And it was scientifically dubious, as genetic evidence has shown that people are all so similar that race is more of a cultural concept than a biological phenomenon. Humans, in fact, are less genetically diverse than chimps.
As race was de-emphasized in the 1940s and ’50s, anthropologists started to think more about the mechanisms of evolution and how populations change over time, a direct influence of the “modern synthesis” that had united Darwinian evolution and genetics.