See Borneo Swallow the British Isles Whole

A curious map from Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography

Preceded only by faraway Greenland (2.130.800 sq. km, 822.706 sq. mi.) and nearby New Guinea (785.753 sq. km, 303.381 sq. mi.), Borneo is the third-largest island in the world (748.168 sq. km, 288.869 sq. mi.) That’s a somewhat surprising accolade for this low-key South East Asian island with an institutionally split personality.

Borneo is shared by three states: the southern chunk is Indonesian, most of the northern part is Malaysian except for the enclaved sovereign sultanate of Brunei Darussalam (itself consisting of two non-contiguous parts). The Indonesians refer to their part of the island as Kalimantan, in Malaysia the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak are simply referred to as East Malaysia.

The two main British Isles are a bit further down the list of largest islands. Great Britain (218.595 sq. km, 84.400 sq. mi.) still is the eighth-largest, after the Japanese main island of Honshu and before the Canadian arctic island of Victoria. Ireland (81.638 sq. km, 31.521 sq. mi.), i.e. the Republic plus British-governed Northern Ireland is the world’s 20th-largest island, after the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and before the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Together, they measure about 300.000 sq. km (116.000 sq. mi.), or less than half of Borneo.

For the benefit of his primarily British readers, 19th-century naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace included this map in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, comparing the size of the British Isles with that of Borneo to give them an idea of the vastness of the place. The British Isles are shown in their normal projection (north up) while Borneo is tilted (east up) to provide better shelter for the British Isles.

Welsh-born Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913; yes, Russel with one -l) dedicated his book to “Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species (…) not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship, but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and works.”

Yet Wallace was quite an important figure himself in the field of evolutionary biology, as in anthropology and geographical exploration. While exploring the Malay archipelago, he discovered the Wallace line, dividing the Australian fauna from that of Asia. Also named after him are Wallace’s flying frog and the ‘Wallace effect’, the hypothesis that natural selection can contribute to the reproductive isolation of incipient species by encouraging varieties to develop barriers to hybridisation. Wallace proposed a theory of natural selection independent of Darwin, prompting the latter to publish his theory sooner than intended.

Although not the acknowledged progenitor of the evolution theory, Wallace is considered the father of biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of animal species. In fact in biogeography, ‘Wallacea’ describes a group of Indonesian islands separated by deep water from Asia as well as Australia (i.e. Lombok, Komodo, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Sulawesi and the North Moluccan islands).

The Malay Archipelago was one of the most popular journals of scientific exploration of its time, kept continuously in print from its publication in 1869 into the second decade of the 20th century. Joseph Conrad (of Heart of Darkness fame) called it his “favourite bedside companion”. Despite his scientific importance, Wallace’s relations with other evolutionists were somewhat strained by his belief in spiritualism. He is sometimes labelled one of the ‘forgotten evolutionists’. Darwin successfully campaigned for Wallace to receive a state pension of £200 per annum so that he could overcome the endemic poverty he suffered from towards the end of his life.

This map, placing Sarawak just off Ireland’s westernmost Dingle Peninsula, London on the Prime Meridian, slicing off Borneo’s south and the Shetlands touching Borneo’s eastern side, can be found here on papuaweb, a website dedicated to issues relevant to the Indonesian provinces of Papua and Papua Barat (formerly collectively known as Irian Jaya) for students, researchers, development workers, community leaders, government agencies and others.

Strange Maps #169

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.