Peking Man (Chinese: 北京猿人; pinyin: Běijīng Yuánrén), Homo erectus pekinensis (formerly known by the junior synonym Sinanthropus pekinensis), is an example of Homo erectus. Discovered in 1923–27 during excavations at Zhoukoudian (Chou K'ou-tien) near Beijing (written "Peking" before the adoption of the Pinyin romanization system), China, in 2009 this group of fossil specimens dated from roughly 750,000 years ago, and a new 26Al/10Be dating suggests they are in the range of 680,000–780,000 years old.
Between 1929 and 1937, 15 partial crania, 11 mandibles, many teeth, some skeletal bones and large numbers of stone tools were discovered in the Lower Cave at Locality 1 of the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian. Their age is estimated to be between 500,000 and 300,000 years old. (A number of fossils of modern humans were also discovered in the Upper Cave at the same site in 1933.) The most complete fossils, all of which were calvariae, are:
Most of the study on these fossils was done by Davidson Black until his death in 1934. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin took over until Franz Weidenreich replaced him and studied the fossils until he left China in 1941. The original fossils disappeared in 1941, but excellent casts and descriptions remain.
Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and American palaeontologist 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 quarrymen, 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 palaeontologist Otto Zdansky, who found what appeared to be a fossilised human molar. He returned to the site in 1923, and materials excavated in the two subsequent digs were sent to Uppsala University in Sweden for analysis. In 1926 Andersson announced the discovery of two human molars 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. Swedish palaeontologist Anders Birger Bohlin unearthed a tooth that fall, and Black placed it in a gold locket on his watch chain.
Black 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 about such an identification on the basis of a single tooth, and the foundation demanded more specimens before it would agree to grant additional money.
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 six nearly complete skullcaps) from more than 40 individual specimens. These excavations came to an end in 1937 with the Japanese invasion.
Excavations at Zhoukoudian resumed after the war. The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987. New excavations were started at the site in June 2009.
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 Peking Man was a scavenger, not a hunter.
Following the discovery of specimens of Lantian Man starting in 1963, that was added to the genus as Sinanthropus lantianensis. The next year Lantian man was reclassified as a subspecies of Homo erectus. The genus Sinanthropus is disused.
Franz Weidenreich (1873 – 1948) considered Peking Man as a human ancestor and specifically an ancestor of the Chinese people, as seen in his original multiregional model of human evolution in 1946. Chinese writings on human evolution in 1950 generally considered evidence insufficient to determine whether Peking Man was ancestral to modern humans. One view was that Peking Man in some ways resembled modern Europeans more than modern Asians, but this debate of the origin has sometimes become complicated by issues of Chinese nationalism according to Barry Sautman. By 1952 Peking Man was considered by some to be a direct ancestor of modern humans. Some paleontologists have noted a perceived continuity in skeletal remains.
The fossils of Peking Man were stored at the Union Medical College in Peking. Eye-witness accounts state that in 1941, while Beijing was under Japanese occupation, but just before the outbreak of hostilities between Japan and the Allied Forces during the Second World War, the fossils were packed into two large crates and loaded onto a US Marine vehicle bound for the port of Qinhuangdao in northern China, close to the Marine base at Camp Holcomb. From there they were to be sent by ship to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but the fossils vanished en route.
Various attempts have been made to locate the fossils, but so far without success. In 1972 US financier Christopher Janus offered a $5,000 (USD) reward for the missing skulls; one woman contacted him asking for $500,000, but she subsequently vanished. In July 2005, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the Chinese government set up a committee to find the bones.
Rumours about the fate of the bones range from their having been on board a Japanese ship (the Awa Maru), or an American ship that was sunk, to being ground up for traditional Chinese medicine. Four of the teeth, however, are still in the possession of the Paleontological Museum of Uppsala University.
In the summer of 1921, Dr. J.G. Andersson and his companions discovered this richly fossiliferous deposit through the local quarry men’s guide. During examination, he was surprised to notice some fragments of white quartz in tabus, a mineral normally foreign in that locality. The significance of this occurrence immediately suggested itself to him and turning to his companions, he exclaimed dramatically "Here is primitive man; now all we have to do is find him!"
For some weeks in this summer and a longer period in 1923 Dr. Otto Zdansky carried on excavations of this cave site. He accumulated an extensive collection of fossil material, including two Homo erectus teeth that were recognized in 1926. So, the cave home of Peking Man was opened to the world.
The discovery also settled a controversy as to whether the bones of Java Man – found in 1891 – belonged to a human ancestor. Doubters had argued that they were the remains of a deformed ape, but the finding of so many similar fossils at Dragon Bone Hill silenced such speculation and became a central element in the modern interpretation of human evolution.
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