Margarethe Lenore Selenka was an extraordinary person. She was the first woman to excavate in Indonesia, and later became a prominent pacifist and advocate of gender equality in Germany.
Selenka was born in Hamburg (Germany) in 1860 (1). Under the influence of her second husband, Emil Selenka, a zoologist at the University of Erlangen whom she married in 1893, she began to study palaeontology, anthropology and zoology and became his assistant. She was an active participant on several trips to Japan, India and China organized by her husband. When Emil fell severely ill on a trip to Borneo in 1892, and had to return to Germany, she took over the leadership of the expedition, and spent several months on Borneo studying orangutans and exploring the jungles (2).
Back in Germany, the Selenkas moved to Munich in 1895. Here, Margarethe befriended peace activists Anita Augspurg and Lida Gustava Heymann, and she became involved in the German feminist-pacifist movement. Margarethe campaigned for women’s suffrage and legal gender equality in the German empire, and was the first woman to launch an international peace protest in 1899 (3).
Emil and Margarethe were fascinated by the work of Eugene Dubois, the Dutch anatomist who discovered the remains of Java man (Pithecanthropus erectus, now Homo erectus) at Trinil, Java, in 1981. Not all scientists agreed with Dubois´ interpretation of P. erectus as the missing link between apes and humans. The Selenkas decided to continue the work in Trinil to settle the scientific dispute. They organized an expedition to Java, but unfortunately, Emil died in 1902. Margarethe decided to continue the plans, in honor of her husband, and to lead the expedition, which took place in 1907-1908, herself. The Selenka expedition did not yield more evidence of H. erectus at Trinil, but the expedition unearthed an enormous amount of Pleistocene vertebrates, and contributed significantly to the understanding of the Java man stratigraphy (4).
- Albers, P.C.H. & de Vos, J. 2010. Through Eugène Dubois’ Eyes: Stills of a Turbulent Life. Brill, Leiden, pp. 185.
- Selenka, E. & Selenka, L., 1905. Sonnige Welten: Ostasiatische Reiseskizzen [Sunny worlds: East Asian travel sketches] Wiesbaden C.W. Kreidel. https://archive.org/details/sonnigeweltenost00sele
- Katzel, U. 2001. A Radical Women’s Rights and Peace Activist: Margarethe Lenore Selenka, Initiator of the First Worldwide Women’s Peace Demonstration in 1899. Journal of Women´s History, 13(3), pp. 46-69.
- Selenka, M. L. & Blanckenhorn, M.L.P. 1911. Die Pithecanthropus-Schichten auf Java. Geologische und paläontologische Ergebnisse der Trinil-Expedition (1907 und 1908), ausgeführt mit Unterstützung der Akademischen Jubiläumsstiftung der Stadt Berlin und der Königlich bayerischen Akademi der Wissenschaften. W. Engelmann, Leipzig. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.60936
Written by Hanneke Meijer
Edited and posted by Suzie
Image of Selenka from Through Eugène Dubois’ Eyes: Stills of a Turbulent Life (1). The image of bones is from Die Pithecanthropus-Schichten auf Java (4). Both are out of copyright.