A Trip To Bali By The Forbidden Archeologist

By Michael A. Cremo (Drutakarma Das)

Your forbidden archeologist sometimes has to endure being invited to out of the way places such as Bali, the original tropical island paradise. This can mean some very tiring flights, like the one from LA to Tokyo, and then on to Singapore, where I spent a restless night at one of the city-state’s monotonous glass and steel hotels. The next evening, I caught the Garuda Airlines flight to Denpasar, Bali’s main city and site of its international airport. When I arrived, my hosts put me up in a boutique tropical village style hotel in Sanur, on the southeast coast of Bali. The name of the place is the Tamu Kami Hotel, and I highly recommend it. Those who follow the lives of the rich and famous may recall that Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were married in a Hindu wedding ceremony at Sanur back in the 1990s. In the mornings, I would take walks along the Sanur beach (some nice breaks out beyond the reef, if you are into surfing), chanting Hare Krishna on my beads. In the distance, up the coast to the north, I could see the Gunung Agung volcano rising from the golden tropical mists of dawn. Back in 1963 it blew its top, but it’s quiet now. I found the beachfront always a little deserted, an effect of some terrorist bombings a couple of years back in the main Balinese resort town of Kuta. Still, I did notice a smattering of mostly elderly tourists from Germany, Holland, and Japan.

Bali is part of Indonesia, the fifth largest nation in the world, by population. Centuries ago, it was dominated by Hindu culture. Then the Muslims came, and now Indonesia is mostly Islamic. In fact, it is the largest Islamic country. But somehow Bali remained untouched, and is today still 95 percent Hindu. Because the traditional art, music, and culture throughout Indonesia is based on Hindu themes, from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, even the Islamic majority retains some of that influence.

The centerpiece of my visit to Bali was a seminar, with me as chief guest, at the island’s main university, the Udayana University in Denpasar. The seminar was dedicated to a discussion of my latest book, Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory, and was attended by several hundred students and professors from the university, including heads of several departments, and the vice chancellor. The vice governor of Bali also attended.

During my stay in Bali, I also took a side trip to Surabaya on the nearby island of Java, where university students and representatives of a Hindu cultural society invited me to speak on Human Devolution at the city’s ornate main Hindu temple.

In all of my lectures in Bali and Java, I discussed an interesting case of evidence for extreme human antiquity from that part of the world. In the 1990s, archeologist from Australia and Indonesia found human artifacts on Flores Island, located a few islands to the east of Bali in the Indonesian island chain (Nature,1998, vol. 392, pp. 173-176). The artifacts were found in a stratum given an age of 800,000 years by the zircon fission track dating method. The archeologists had to attribute the tools to someone. They decided the makers could not have been human beings like us because according to their current way of thinking human beings like us did not exist 800,000 years ago in Indonesia. They believe anatomically modern humans came into existence between one and two hundred thousand years ago. What kind of hominid was existing 800,000 years ago? Homo erectus. So, the archeologists dutifully attributed the stone tools to Homo erectus. But there was a problem with this. How did Homo erectus get to Flores Island, which 800,000 years ago (as now) was separated from the nearest land by wide ocean straits? The archeologists proposed that Homo erectus must have made some kind of boat or raft and deliberately crossed the seas, from Java (then still attached to the Southeast Asia landmass).

But there was a problem with that. Up to that time, archeologists had thought that only anatomically modern humans made deliberate sea crossings. In fact, the oldest recognized evidence for deliberate sea crossings was the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Australia from Southeast Asia at around 50,000 years ago. So, to have the apeman Homo erectus sailing across the seas at 800,000 years ago was quite extraordinary. In order to explain the evidence on Flores Island, the archeologists had to elevate the cultural level of Homo erectus to the anatomically modern human level.

I proposed that there was another solution to the problem. And the solution lies on Java (it was really nice to say that in Java). It was in Java, late in the nineteenth century, at a place called Trinil, that the Dutch researcher Eugene Dubois found the first fossils of Homo erectus. One year he found a primitive skullcap with a prominent brow ridge. A year later, he found a femur (thigh bone) about 15 yards away. He put the two together, and proclaimed the Java apeman to the world of science. Dubois called the creature Pithecanthropus erectus, but scientists now classify it as a variety of Homo erectus.

The story of Dubois’s discovery is recorded in every archeology textbook. What we do not see in most textbooks is that in the 1970s two prominent British physical anthropologists carefully studied the femur found by Java (Michael Day and T. I. Molleson, Symposia of the Society for the Study of Human Biology,vol. 2, pp. 127–154). They concluded it was identical to modern human femurs and that it differed in significant ways from every Homo erectus femur that had been found afterwards. That’s interesting, because Dubois drawings of the site show that he found both the skullcap and the femur in the same stratum. And modern geologists have used the potassium-argon method to give a date of 800,000 years to that stratum at Trinil.

The evidence shows that 800,000 years ago two kinds of hominids were living in Java. First, a population of Homo erectus, as represented by the primitive skullcap. And second, a population of anatomically modern humans, as represented by the anatomically modern human femur. And I propose it was members of that anatomically modern human population, existing on Java 800,000 years ago, who made the sea crossing to Flores Island, and left the stone tools there.

So, in order to explain the stone tools on Flores Island it is not necessary to raise the cultural level of Homo erectus to the anatomically modern human level. (At this point in the talk, I showed an image of a Homo erectus man wearing a dress shirt and bow tie, to which the audience mercifully responded with the hoped-for laughter – sparing me the embarrassment of a visual joke gone flat.)

Between lectures, my hosts arranged to take me to some interesting places in Bali. One of them was Pura Penataran Sasih, the Temple of the Fallen Moon, at Pejeng. As in most Balinese temples, you enter a first gate into an outer courtyard. Then you go through a second more elaborately carved stone gate into an inner courtyard, where you find the actual sacred temple structures, which look like small pagodas. On the top of one of the pagodas, partially hidden from view, is a large bronze kettle gong. The hour-glass shaped kettle, about 6 feet long, rests on its side. It was cast as a single piece of bronze, and is the largest single-piece bronze object in the world. According to local legends, it is not of human manufacture, however. In his book The Art and Culture of Bali, Urs Ramseyer, says, “The gong known as the ‘moon’ (sasih) of Pejeng is one of the category of objects considered to be charged with unfathomable power; many Balinese believe that at some time these objects fell from heaven (piturun), and thus were not made by man. In the course of time numerous stories have grown up around this gong, all of which start out with an event connected with the moon. For some it is the wheel of the moon’s ‘carriage’. . . . Others see it as an ear peg of the moon goddess Ratih, or as a symbol of the moon itself.”

In Bali, you do get the feeling that spirits are everywhere, not all of them of the friendly type. I happened to be in Bali for the traditional New Year’s celebration. On the day before the New Year begins, the Balinese hold elaborate exorcisms at the main crossroads of towns and villages (evil spirits congregate at crossroads). The evil spirits depart into the sky. The ceremonies cease at dawn, and for the next twenty four hours, everyone must remain inside their dwellings, making no noise and showing no lights. If the evil spirits who have been driven into the sky see no people below, they will think no one is there and will go to some other place. The prohibition on going out is rigidly followed, and even tourists are asked to observe it (although I was advised I could keep a small light on in my hotel suite if I kept my curtains tightly drawn). And stay inside I did.  I certainly did not want to be the guy who caused the evil spirits to come back down.