What is it about?

A Catholic priest and amateur palaeontologist, Theodor Verhoeven is best known for his discovery of sites on the Indonesian island of Flores that yielded fossilized remains of Middle Pleistocene stegodons (prehistoric elephants) and stone artifacts suggesting early occupation by pre-sapiens hominins. Eventually, these finds influenced investigations resulting in the discovery of Homo floresiensis, thirteen years after Verhoeven’s death. Verhoeven’s earliest fieldwork, however, included the discovery of remains of a small-bodied Homo sapiens dating to 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, which he identified as a ‘negrito or ‘protonegrito’.

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Why is it important?

In anthropology ‘negrito’ usually refers to populations in west Malaysia and the Philippines distinguished by a dark-complexion, curly or wooly head hair, and small body size. In this article, I present new evidence revealing that Verhoeven believed negritos survived on Flores as discrete populations during his own time and, moreover, that a fellow Catholic priest was one such negrito. I also discuss how Verhoeven’s views on both prehistoric and living ‘negritos’ suggest he would likely have interpreted both as descendants of floresiensis and human contemporaries of much earlier stegodons. In this Verhoeven would have been wrong. Yet the significance of his palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries for subsequent, professional research illustrates one of the most remarkable collaborations between academics and amateurs in the history of anthropology.

Perspectives

For a long time I've long wanted to discuss Father Verhoeven's views on Flores' negritos and how these related to his palaeontological and archaeological work. Other work got in the way, but news of the death in 2020 of Clark Cunningham, the anthropologist who kindly lent me his notes from conversations with Verhoeven in the early 1960's, provided the necessary stimulus. Not only was it important to acknowledge Cunningham's assistance, but also to show the importance of Verhoeven's amateur investigations for the discovery of the remarkable species, Homo floresiensis (a.k.a. 'the hobbit) by his successors.

Gregory Forth

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This page is a summary of: Verhoeven’s Living Negritos and the Story of Zakharias Ze, Bijdragen tot de taal- land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, June 2022, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/22134379-bja10042.
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