Peking Man

Peking Man is an example of Homo erectus. A group of fossil specimens was discovered in 1923-27 during excavations at Zhoukoudian (Chou K'ou-tien) near Beijing (at that time known as Peking), China. More recently, the finds have been dated from roughly 500 000 years ago, although a new study suggests they may be as much as 680,000 - 780,000 years old.

Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and American paleontologist Walter W. Granger came to Zhoukoudian, China in search of prehistoric fossils in 1921. They were directed to the site at Dragon Bone Hill by local quarry men, where Andersson recognised deposits of quartz that were not native to the area. Immediately realising the importance of this find he turned to his colleague and announced, "Here is primitive man, now all we have to do is find him!"

Excavation work was begun immediately by Andersson's assistant Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky, who found what appeared to be a fossilized human molar. He returned to the site in 1923 and materials excavated in the two subsequent digs were sent back to Uppsala University in Sweden for analysis. In 1926 Andersson announced the discovery of two human molars found in this material and Zdansky published his findings.

Canadian anatomist Davidson Black of Peking Union Medical College, excited by Andersson and Zdansky's find, secured funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and recommenced excavations at the site in 1927 with both Western and Chinese scientists. A tooth was unearthed that fall by Swedish paleontologist Anders Birger Bohlin which Davidson placed in a locket around his neck.

Davidson published his analysis in the journal Nature, identifying his find as belonging to a new species and genus which he named Sinanthropus pekinensis, but many fellow scientists were skeptical of such an identification based on a single tooth and the Foundation demanded more specimens before they would give an additional grant.

A lower jaw, several teeth, and skull fragments were unearthed in 1928. Black presented these finds to the Foundation and was rewarded with an $80,000 grant that he used to establish the Cenozoic Research Laboratory.

Excavations at the site under the supervision of Chinese archaeologists Yang Zhongjian, Pei Wenzhong, and Jia Lanpo uncovered 200 human fossils (including 6 nearly complete skullcaps) from more than 40 individual specimens. These excavation came to an end in 1937 with the Japanese invasion.

Fossils of Peking Man were placed in the safe at the Cenozoic Research Laboratory of the Peking Union Medical College. Eventually, in November 1941, secretary Hu Chengzi packed up the fossils so they could be sent to USA for safekeeping until the end of the war. They vanished en route to the port city of Qinghuangdao. They were probably in possession of a group of US marines whom the Japanese captured when the war began between Japan and the USA.

Various parties have tried to locate the fossils, but so far they have been without result. In 1972, a US financier Christopher Janus promised a $5,000 (USD) reward for the missing skulls; one woman contacted him, asking for $500,000 (USD) but she later vanished. In July 2005, the Chinese government founded a committee to find the bones to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. There are various theories of what might have happened, including a theory that the bones sank with the Japanese ship Awa Maru in 1945.

Subsequent Research

Excavations at Zhoukoudian resumed after the war, and parts of another skull were found in 1966. To date a number of other partial fossil remains have been found. The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Paleontological Conclusions

The first specimens of Homo erectus had been found in Java in 1891 by Eugene Dubois, but were dismissed by many as the remains of a deformed ape. The discovery of the great quantity of finds at Zhoukoudian put this to rest and Java Man, who had initially been named Pithecanthropus erectus, was transferred to the genus Homo along with Peking Man.

Contiguous findings of animal remains and evidence of fire and tool usage, as well as the manufacturing of tools, were used to support H. erectus being the first "faber" or tool-worker. The analysis of the remains of "Peking Man" led to the claim that the Zhoukoudian and Java fossils were examples of the same broad stage of human evolution.

This interpretation was challenged in 1985 by Lewis Binford, who claimed that the Peking Man was a scavenger, not a hunter. The 1998 team of Steve Weiner of the Weizmann Institute of Science concluded that they had not found evidence that the Peking Man had used fire.

Relation to Modern Chinese People

Some Chinese paleoanthropologists have asserted in the past that the modern Chinese (and possibly other ethnic groups) are descendants of Peking Man. However, modern genetic research does not support this hypothesis. A recent study undertaken by Chinese geneticist Jin Li showed that the genetic diversity of modern Chinese people is well within the whole world population. This shows that there could not have been any inter-breeding between modern human immigrants to East Asia and Homo erectus, such as Peking Man, and affirms that the Chinese are descended from Africa, like all other modern humans, in accordance with the Recent single-origin hypothesis.However, some paleontologists still see continuity in skeletal remains.

Homo erectus pekinensis   Wikipedia

In the News ...

Unique tooth reveals details of the Peking Man's life   PhysOrg - March 12, 2015
In 2011, a tooth from the Peking Man was found in a box at the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University. In the latest issue of Acta Anthropologica Sinica, researchers at Uppsala University and a Chinese research institute have now published their analysis of the tooth. The discovery gives us new knowledge about one of the most mythical ancestors of the modern man. Two Chinese paleontologists from Beijing were invited to study the tooth. They could quickly determine that it was a canine tooth from a Peking Man.

New analyses verify the use of fire by Peking Man   PhysOrg - March 11, 2014
Zhoukoudian Locality 1 in northern China has been widely known for the discovery of the Middle Pleistocene human ancestor Homo erectus pekinensis ( known as Peking Man ) since the 1920s. By 1931, the suggestion that the Zhoukoudian hominins could use and control fire had become widely accepted. However, some analyses have cast doubt on this assertion as siliceous aggregate (an insoluble phase of burned ash) was not present in ash remains recovered from the site. New analyses of four ash samples retrieved from different positions of Zhoukoudian Locality 1 during the excavations carried out in 2009, present evidence for the controlled use of fire by Peking Man. Peking Man Lived 200,000 Years Earlier Than Thought   National Geographic - March 13, 2009
Peking man the group of early humans whose 1920s discovery gave a big boost to the theory of evolution lived hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously believed, a new study says. Some researchers believe the discovery hints at two separate migrations of Homo erectus (of which Peking man is a subspecies) out of Africa: one into northeastern China and another into Southeast Asia.

'Peking Man' older than thought   BBC - March 11, 2009
Iconic ancient human fossils from China are 200,000 years older than had previously been thought, a study shows. The new dating analysis suggests the "Peking Man" fossils, unearthed in the caves of Zhoukoudian are some 750,000 years old. The discovery should help define a more accurate timeline for early humans arriving in North-East Asia. A US-Chinese team of researchers has published its findings in the prestigious journal Nature. The cave system of Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in the world. Between 1921 and 1966, archaeologists working at the site unearthed tens of thousands of stone tools and hundreds of fragmentary remains from about 40 early humans. Paleontologists later assigned these members of the human lineage to the species Homo erectus.

Ancient 'Peking Man' Way Older Than Thought   Live Science - March 11, 2009
The famous fossils of an early relative of modern humans commonly called Peking Man may be 200,000 years older than previously thought, a new study finds. The revised date could change the timeline and number of migrations of the Homo erectus species out of Africa and into Asia. It also suggests that Peking Man endured glacial climates. Previous studies estimated that H. erectus fossils found nearly a century ago in China were from about 500,000 years ago. The authors of the new study sought to re-date the fossils using a relatively new method that looks at the radioactive decay of aluminum and beryllium in quartz exposed to cosmic radiation. With this method, they pinned the date closer to 780,000 years ago. Understanding the history of H. erectus is of interest to scientists because the populations of the species that lived in Africa are "implicated in the ancestry of modern humans," said paleoanthropologist Russell L. Ciochon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who was not involved in the new study.