LEIDEN, the Netherlands — Ancient crocodile jaws, the cranium of a primeval water buffalo and a million-year-old turtle shell are just a few of the fossils that fill long metal shelves in a depot of Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a popular natural history museum in the Netherlands.
Neatly ordered cardboard boxes contain thousands more fossils, with labels such as Rhinoceros sondaicus (Javan rhinoceros) or Sus brachygnathus (extinct wild boar), under the title “Collection Dubois.”
All told, Naturalis owns about 40,000 prehistoric objects collected in the 19th century by the Dutch physician and anatomist Eugéne Dubois from the banks of the Bengawan Solo, a river in Java, and at other digs in Indonesia, which he shipped back to the Netherlands.
The highlight of the Dubois trove takes pride of place in the museum: Java Man, the first known specimen of Homo erectus, long considered a “missing link” between humans and apes, is part of a popular display on human evolution. A skullcap, femur and molar appear to float in a vitrine in a central hall, next to a representation of what Java Man might have looked like.
But the remains are not just a museum centerpiece, they are also the focal point of an international restitution battle.
Indonesia wants the femur and skull fragment back. Or rather, it would like to start with the return of those pieces, but ultimately it wants the entire Dubois Collection. The claim is just one part of a larger Indonesian request for objects from several Dutch museums, but it is by far the most contentious.
While art museums have been grappling since the 1990s with claims that they hold or display looted Nazi art, and ethnographic museums have faced repatriation claims from African nations and Indigenous people worldwide, the Java Man case pushes restitution into the realm of the natural history museum — where it hasn’t been much of an issue until now.
It also asks a new question: Who owns prehistory?
The Dubois artifacts are from a time before human civilization, before the Earth was divided into countries, so they can have no true national affiliation. They aren’t linked to cultural traditions or artistic practices of any specific society, and they can’t be identified as anyone’s ancestral remains.
Yet they were removed by a European scientist during a period of colonial domination with which much of the Western cultural world is now trying to reckon. Historians say that Dubois used forced laborers for his digs and that some of them died while working for him; the museum accepts those accounts. The argument for restitution rests on the idea that Naturalis’s ownership of the collection is based on colonial power.
The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special Section
Indonesia has requested the collection’s return before: The first time was immediately after it gained independence, in 1949. Museum administrators argued at the time that scientific finds were universal heritage, rather than national patrimony; they also argued that the fossils would not have been discovered without Dubois’s initiative. For years, the institution has maintained a “finders keepers” attitude that is considered increasingly problematic.
In response to the claim, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is setting up a commission to weigh in on the matter, a process that could take months, said Jules van de Ven, a ministry spokesman. “What’s important to the Dutch government is: How did it get into our state collection?” he said. He added that if the committee determined that “we took it without buying it, and it wasn’t a gift, then we will return it. The scientific value of a certain artifact to a collection is not part of the restitution debate as far as the government is concerned.”
Naturalis’s deputy director, Maaike Romijn, said in an interview that the museum would follow the ministry’s advice, but she added that the impact of returning the Dubois Collection would not be limited to her museum, or to the Netherlands, but would affect “the full international scientific field.”
“Large parts of our natural history collections here, and also throughout the world, were collected during colonial times,” she said. “That’s just a fact. The question is: With this changing perspective, how are we going to now look at those collections?”
Bonnie Triyana, a historian who is the secretary of Indonesia’s repatriation committee, said that it was not so simple just to look past the circumstances in which many fossils were acquired. It was “the colonial context,” he said, that allowed Dubois “to take this collection away so easily from where it belongs.” Seventy-seven years have passed since Indonesia gained sovereignty, he said, adding that the two countries can now coordinate scientific activities as equal partners.
The debate about whether Java Man belongs in Naturalis or in the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta — which currently displays a reproduction of the fossils — fits into a larger process known as the “decolonization of museums.”
In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged to make the return of African cultural artifacts a “top priority” for his administration. While France has been slow in living up to Macron’s promise, with just a few headline-grabbing restitutions, his statement nonetheless prompted other European countries to respond to repatriation requests, leading to some important returns, such as Germany’s gradual restitution of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
While Nigeria argued that the Bronzes represent its cultural patrimony from recent centuries, it is harder for countries to argue for the restitution of prehistoric objects without looking at the specific circumstances around their removal.
In 2020, the Zambian government renewed a claim for Rhodesian Man, a 250,000-year-old fossilized skull discovered in 1921. The skull, which is a rare specimen of the human ancestor Homo heidelbergensis , was discovered in a zinc mine in the former British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia, which achieved independence as Zambia in 1964; the fossil is now in the Natural History Museum in London. Zambia argues that it was removed illegally.
This summer, the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, in Germany, announced that it would return a 110-million-year-old dinosaur fossil to Brazil, where it was unearthed about a decade ago, because it was removed without proper export permits and documentation.
Those cases are only the tip of the iceberg, said Wiebke Ahrndt, president of the German Museums Association, who helped Germany formulate a set of rules for handling objects acquired during colonial times. “The topic of archaeological objects from colonial contexts is something quite new,” she said, “but it’s a growing issue.”
Countries seeking restitution of items that can be considered scientific, biological or part of natural history may face extra difficulties with their claims, said Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law in London. “Items of scientific importance can be examined and cared for anywhere,” he said. “They don’t have to be in a particular nation state. In that sense, there is an argument to be made that the importance to the country of origin is less clear.”
Pieter ter Keurs, a professor at Leiden University who studies museums, said that cases like the one involving Java Man should not be decided on legal matters alone.
“There’s a moral and ethical side of the issue,” he said. “Dubois himself didn’t find these objects; he used forced laborers,” he added. “At the time, what Dubois did was considered legal, but by today’s ethical standards, we say, ‘You can’t use forced labor.’ Yes, it’s a judgment from nowadays about the past, but that’s what’s constantly going on now
The Dubois Collection is just one entry on a list of eight that the Indonesian government wants the Netherlands to repatriate. The list became public last month, when an Indonesian official shared it on a slide during a lecture at a museums conference in Bandung, Indonesia.
A Dutch scholar attending the conference remotely, Fenneke Sysling, snapped a photograph and shared it on Twitter. A news item then ran in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, leading to more articles, and a great deal of public controversy. “Robbery is robbery,” an opinion column in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper said. A group of historians, writing in the newspaper De Volkskrant, called Naturalis’s response to restitution claims “deplorable.”
Sysling, a historian of science and colonialism at the University of Leiden, who co-authored a scholarly paper on the provenance of the Dubois Collection, said it was a good thing that the debate about restitution had expanded to include prehistorical objects.
“There is an artificial divide between natural history museums and all the other museums,” she said, because the natural history museums have considered their collections above the fray of politics.
“This is an entirely new category in this debate,” she added. “It targets a museum that has so far had nothing to do with repatriation discussions, which means that all kinds of scientists will have something to say about it.”