Last appearance of Homo erectus at Ngandong, Java, 117,000–108,000 years ago

Abstract

Homo erectus is the founding early hominin species of Island Southeast Asia, and reached Java (Indonesia) more than 1.5 million years ago1,2. Twelve H. erectus calvaria (skull caps) and two tibiae (lower leg bones) were discovered from a bone bed located about 20 m above the Solo River at Ngandong (Central Java) between 1931 and 19333,4, and are of the youngest, most-advanced form of H. erectus5,6,7,8. Despite the importance of the Ngandong fossils, the relationship between the fossils, terrace fill and ages have been heavily debated9,10,11,12,13,14. Here, to resolve the age of the Ngandong evidence, we use Bayesian modelling of 52 radiometric age estimates to establish—to our knowledge—the first robust chronology at regional, valley and local scales. We used uranium-series dating of speleothems to constrain regional landscape evolution; luminescence, 40argon/39argon (40Ar/39Ar) and uranium-series dating to constrain the sequence of terrace evolution; and applied uranium-series and uranium series–electron-spin resonance (US–ESR) dating to non-human fossils to directly date our re-excavation of Ngandong5,15. We show that at least by 500 thousand years ago (ka) the Solo River was diverted into the Kendeng Hills, and that it formed the Solo terrace sequence between 316 and 31 ka and the Ngandong terrace between about 140 and 92 ka. Non-human fossils recovered during the re-excavation of Ngandong date to between 109 and 106 ka (uranium-series minimum)16 and 134 and 118 ka (US–ESR), with modelled ages of 117 to 108 thousand years (kyr) for the H. erectus bone bed, which accumulated during flood conditions3,17. These results negate the extreme ages that have been proposed for the site and solidify Ngandong as the last known occurrence of this long-lived species.

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Fig. 1: Location of Java with H. erectus sites and key study sites on the terraces.
Fig. 2: Cross-sections of Ngandong site, showing the stratigraphic context and the location of our dating samples.
Fig. 3: A regional chronology for the Ngandong evidence, summarizing the results of our approach.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are included in the Supplementary Information. Additional data are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

Code availability

The Oxcal code used for the Bayesian model in this study is included in Supplementary Table 15.

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Acknowledgements

This research, including the Solo River survey and the Sembungan and Menden terrace excavations, was funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery grant (DP1093049) to K.E.W. and (DP0343334 and DP0770234) to M.J.M. The 2008–2010 excavations at Ngandong were supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (ICRG-92), University of Iowa (UI) Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), UI Office of the President, UI Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the UI Office of the Vice-President for Research (to R.L.C.). The Menden excavations were financially supported by the Geological Survey Institute in Bandung (GSI). Laboratory costs were funded, in part, by the Human Evolution Research Fund at the University of Iowa Foundation. The 40Ar/39Ar dating was funded by the Villum Foundation. The authors acknowledge the invaluable support provided by A. D. Wirakusaman, and the support of E. A. Subroto. Excavations at Sembungan were undertaken under a recommendation letter from the Provincial Government of West Java to the Governor of the Central Java Province no. 070.10/237; a recommendation letter from the latter to the local government of the Blora Regency no. 070.10/237; and a research permit issued by the Blora Regency no. 071/457/2005. Excavations at Ngandong were carried out with the permission and recommendation of Wahyu, Head of the Foreign Researchers Licensing Secretariat of the State Ministry of Research and Technology (SMRT), which issued research permits 03799/SU/KS/2006, 1718/FRP/SM/VII/2008, and 04/TKPIPA/FRP/SM/IV/2010 for the fieldwork at Ngandong. The excavations at Sembungan and the Menden Terrace site in the Blora Regency were carried out under research permit no. 2785/FRP/SM/XI/2008. We thank K. M. Patel for help with figure creation and editorial assistance with the manuscript.

Author information

Y.R., Y.Z., E.A.B. III, O.F.H., R.L.C., R.G., A., M.E.S., R.L., R.S. and S.P. carried out the 2008 and 2010 excavations at Ngandong, organized by Y.Z. and R.L.C. The Solo River survey and Sembungan and Menden terrace excavations were carried out by K.E.W., M.J.M., G.D.v.d.B., Sidarto, I.K., M.W.M., F.A. and Suminto. Dating of samples and age modelling was conducted by K.E.W., R.G., R.J.-B., R.M.B., M.S., J.-x.Z. and faunal analysis by R.S., J.-P.Z. and G.D.v.d.B. M.W.M. analysed the stone artefacts from Sembungan. This manuscript was written and edited by K.E.W., R.L.C., M.C.W., O.F.H., G.D.v.d.B., E.A.B. III and R.L. with sections of the  Methods and Supplementary Information written by K.E.W., O.F.H., R.L.C., E.A.B. III, R.G., R.M.B., J.-x.Z., M.W.M. and M.S. All authors commented on and contributed to the manuscript.

Correspondence to Kira E. Westaway or Russell L. Ciochon.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Robin Dennell, James K. Feathers, Edward J. Rhodes and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Evolutionary and geomorphical history of region.

The landscape evolutionary stages that created the Solo River terraces. Drawn from refs. 2,3 on a topographical map from the USGS EROS. a, More-than 500-ka drainage from the proto-Merapi and Lawu volcanic highlands formed a lake or lagoon from which the proto-Solo River drained to the south (blue arrow), close to the present-day Pacitan region, and another branch flowed to the north of Lawu. By at least 1.5 million years ago, the Southern Mountains to the south and the Kendeng anticlinorium to the north were slowly emerging, forming the Gunung Sewu, and the Kendeng Hills (previously the Randublantung marine embayment2), respectively. b, By about 500 ka, the seismically uplifted Southern Mountains had blocked the southern exit of the Solo River to the ocean, and the area was dominated by trunk streams of the Solo River. c, Between about 500 and 316 ka, the Solo River abandons its southern trunk stream and extends its northern branch, where it is diverted to the west and northeast and carves an initial crossing through the Kendeng Hills to form the Solo River gap, and drain into the ocean to the north of Surabaya. d, Between about 316 and 31 ka, the uplifting Kendeng anticlinorium and the drainage from the Madiun Basin energized the Solo River, causing incision and forming the Solo River sequence of terraces (white parallel lines). e, Present-day Solo Basin and known fossil sites on exposed terraces. f, A digital elevation model31,32, comprising a satellite image overlying a topographical map of the section of the Solo River system from Kerek village in the south to Sunggun village in the north (USGS Landsat). g, The same digital elevation model, with the classification scheme for the Solo River terraces with the upper, middle, lower and lowermost terraces identified. This image includes the key terrace sites that are sampled in this study; Kerek (upper), Padasmalang (middle), Sembungan (lower), Nglebak (lowermost) and Menden (outside of the Kendeng Hills, but contemporaneous with the upper and middle terraces), and the key fossil site of Ngandong (lower). The white dashed line indicates the limits of the Kendeng Hills. The Menden terrace lies outside of this divide, as does the westward-bearing Solo River and the site of Trinil.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Terrace-site stratigraphy and luminescence sampling.

a, Map of the Kendeng Hills section of the Solo River from Ngawi to Menden, displaying the location of the six studied sites. Each site has a smaller inset showing the site locations, stratigraphic sections of the strath terraces and sampling locations for luminescence dating. b, Ngandong; the inset for the Ngandong site is shown in more detail to identify the exact location of the sampling site within the context of previous excavations. c, Sembungan excavation I. d, Sembungan excavation II. e, Menden. f, Nglebak. g, Padasmalang. h, Kerek. i, Three-dimensional slice of the Solo River valley, showing the terrace sequences and resulting downcutting rates (derived from 21 terrace samples (n = 21), mean ages with uncertainties presented at 1σ) plotted according to elevation and distance away from the river. The associated downcutting rates have been presented for each terrace, and for the river system as a whole.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Stratigraphy and artefacts of the Sembungan excavations.

a, Map of the Sembungan terrace, showing the lithology of the terrace and the location of the terrace rise in relation to the Solo River. The bottom-right inset shows the locations of the excavations I, II and V. b, A profile of the terrace along the A–B transect from A (marked by a red dashed line), showing the location of the sand quarry excavations in relation to the river. c, The west baulk of excavation I (marked on the inset in A), showing the stratigraphic layers and location of the stone artefact concentration (red dashed line at the base of the section). Layer J, very coarse sand; layer I, brown silt; layer H, cross-bedded coarse pebbly sand; layer G, lenses of siltstone; layer F, disturbed; layer E, massive siltstone; layer D, caliche palaeosol. di, Stone artefacts excavated in situ from Sembungan. d, Obsidian flake. e, Chert flake with unifacial retouching to the ventral surface across the proximal end, removing the point of force application. f, Chalcedony flake. g, h, Chalcedony centripetal cores. i, Quartz crystal cluster. Scale bars, 30 mm. j, A stone tool in situ from the Sembungan excavation V. k, Excavation I (inset in a). l, Excavation II (inset in a).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Menden stratigraphy and fossils.

a, The quarry site of Blora on the Menden terrace near Sunggu (Central Java, Indonesia), to the north of the Kendeng Hills. The red dashed lines depict mega cross-bedding in the fluvial terrace. The vertical blue lines correspond to the stratigraphic section shown in b the yellow dashed line depicts the landslide scarp, and the black box shows the location of an almost-complete elephant skeleton. b, The stratigraphy of the Menden terrace according to logs A and B (marked on a). The upper a1, a2 and b layers represent cross-laminated sands and gravels, and the lower c–g layers represent cross-bedded pebbly sandstones. The relative location of the elephant skeleton can be seen by the fossil symbol. c, The excavation of the Menden terrace to recover the elephant skeleton (Elephas hysudrindicus)—a rare elephant species, endemic to Java. d, Site plan of the partial E. hysudrindicus skeleton excavated from the Menden terrace. Thick dashed line indicates extension of the excavation. Red dashed line indicates the boundary of the quarry wall at the time the fossil was discovered. All fossils recovered south of this boundary were found in a landslide at the foot of the quarry wall. 1, partial skull; 2, right tusk; 3, left tusk; 4, mandible; 5, cervical vertebrae; 6, thoracic vertebrae; 7, lumbar vertebrae; 8, caudal vertebrae; 9, right scapula; 10, right humerus; 11, right radius; 12, right carpals; 13, right pelvis; 14, right femur; 15, right tibia; 16, right fibula; 17, right patella; 18, right pes (articulated); 19, left pelvis; 20, left tibia; 21, left radius; 22, left tarsals; 23, left scapula fragment; 24, left humerus; pale yellow bones are ribs. e, The right pelvis and femur of the elephant in articulation, lying next to the left tibia and fibula and tarsals. f, The broken lower jaw of the elephant, with teeth, recovered from the landslide. g, The skull of the elephant in cross-section, as found in the landslide scar. Convoluted sediment layers can be seen below the skull.

Extended Data Fig. 5 History of H. erectus excavations at Ngandong.

a, Aerial view of Ngandong, created from an unpublished map produced by the Geological Survey of the Netherlands Indies, who discovered the site and documented the unearthing of 14 H. erectus specimens. b, Extent of the 27-month-long, 1931–1933 excavations, including H. erectus finds3. The excavations produced about 25,000 fossils from the Ngandong terrace (originally referred to as the 20-m terrace) deposits3. c, Redisplay and translation of an original stratigraphic profile, published by the Geological Survey of the Netherlands Indies, showing the first four H. erectus discoveries made in 19313,4. d, Day-of-discovery photograph of Ngandong VI (Ng 7), which is a whole fossil calvaria3. e, Plan-view drawing of the excavation square that included Ngandong VI, embedded in a river deposit of very coarse-grained volcaniclastic sand, along with marl cobbles and other vertebrate fossils3. f, Location of the site in the greater Ngandong area. g, Total data station mapping allowed the 1931–1933 excavated area to be repositioned on the landscape, including the 1931–1933 H. erectus discovery points (Extended Data Fig. 6). Panels af are redrawn from a previous publication3.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Photographs of 2008 and 2010 excavations at Ngandong including fossil discoveries.

a, View of Ngandong site before the 2008 excavation, facing northwest. The orange string line marks the extent of the 1931–1933 excavations3. b, Collection of samples for optically stimulated luminescence dating, from facies B and C in pit A from 2008 (excavation unit H10a of the 2010 excavation). c, Bovid scapula and other fossils found in facies C in H10a from 2010. d, Excavations underway in excavation units H10a (foreground) and H10c (being dug) in 2010. e, Stratigraphy seen in the northwest wall of excavation unit H10a in 2010. Facies E is seen above the remnant of facies A, B, C and D, which are visible in the bottom half of this section. f, Exposed bone bed in facies A and C in excavation unit G09 from 2010. g, Fossils collected during 2010 excavation. Photographs a, c and e are by O.F.H. All other photographs are by R.L.C.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Fauna from Ngandong recovered during the 2008–2010 excavations.

a, Cervid antler, cf. Axis sp., specimen NDG 2306. b, Lower right M3, cf. Bos sp., specimen NDG 1134. c, Bovid incisor (Ix), cf. Bubalus sp. NDG 1106. d, Bovid cervical vertebra (atlas), specimen NDG 2149. e, Bovid tooth (Bubalus sp.), specimen NDG 1131. f, Cervid tooth, cf. Cervus sp., specimen NDG 2074. g, Bovid tooth (Bubalus sp.), specimen NDG 1038. h, Bovid tooth (Bubalus sp.), specimen NDG 2569. i, Bovid tooth (Bubalus sp.), specimen NDG 1163. j, Artiodactyl canon bone, specimen NDG 2148. k, Artiodactyl hoof, specimen NDG 2199. Specimens NDG-1038, NDG-1163 and NDG-2569 (e, g and i) provided results for US–ESR age calculations (Extended Data Fig. 10). All photographs are by J.-P.Z.

Extended Data Fig. 8 A comparison of red thermoluminescence and pIR-IRSL luminescence data for sample NDG-1.

a, Quartz red thermoluminescence isothermal decays, showing a natural and regenerative decay. b, The dose response of aliquot A of the DAP technique with a De value of 185 ± 53 Gy. The points represent the mean with s.d. uncertainties (too small to see at this scale). c, The dose response of the subtracted aliquot B of the DAP technique with a De value of 170 ± 53 Gy. The points represent the mean value with an error as a s.d. of the fit (too small to see at this scale). d, Photographs of the luminescence emitted by a sample from the Ngandong terrace (NDG-1) compared to a sample from the Wae Raceng terrace in Flores (WR-1). The Flores terrace is so bright it has bleached the photographic paper, whereas the Ngandong terrace is much dimmer but the red luminescence emissions are clearly visible. e, Feldspar pIR-IRSL decays for sample NDG-1, showing the natural and regenerative decays. A long stimulation time is required to remove all of the pIR-IRSL signal. f, A dose–response curve for the sample NDG-1 with a De value of 150 ± 4 Gy. Each dose point represents the mean value with s.d. uncertainties (too small to see at this scale). g, Fading tests for the sample NDG-1, comparing the fading of the infrared signal at 50 °C (IR50) with the fading with the pIR-IRSL signal at 270 °C (pIR-IRSL270)—demonstrating the isolation of a very small fading signal. The points represent the median value with a standard error. h, Radial plot of the NDG-1 single-aliquot data.

Extended Data Fig. 9 U-series-age depth dating of bone.

al, Fossil bone recovered from the Ngandong excavations in 2010, displaying the track lines created by the LA-ICP-MS for U-series-age depth modelling. Bones were recovered from facies A and C. Figure 2 gives the locations of the bones. Specimen numbers (NDG) for each bone are listed in white in the top right corner.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Summary of the US–ESR dating protocol, and results for sample NDG-1038.

a, Left, spectra of the merged signal increasing with irradiation steps. Top right, double saturated exponential dose–response curve of NDG-1038, using the MCDoseE 2.0 program71. Bottom right, dose equivalent distribution, using the MCDoseE 2.0 program71. b, Angular response of the enamel fragment in the ESR spectrometer at various irradiation steps from left to right and top to bottom: natural, 380 s, 1,800 s and 7,200 s. c, Determination of the NOCOR percentage in the angular response after subtracting the natural signal70. d, Uranium-uptake model in both enamel (red) and dentine (black) used to calculate the US–ESR dating of NDG-1038. e, US–ESR age distribution for NDG-1038 using a previously published program72. fh, Photographs of the three bovid molar teeth. f, NDG-1038. g, NDG-11163. h, NDG-2569. These teeth were used for the direct dating by US–ESR of the Ngandong bone bed, with indication of U-series measurement locations. Teeth were sectioned to expose the various dental tissues. Numbers in white circles correspond to the dentine, and numbers in blue circles correspond to the enamel measurements. Results for each laser spot can be found in the Supplementary Table 8.

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Rizal, Y., Westaway, K.E., Zaim, Y. et al. Last appearance of Homo erectus at Ngandong, Java, 117,000–108,000 years ago. Nature 577, 381–385 (2020) doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1863-2

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