• Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

The Tragic Story of the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian


Oct 1, 2022

Nothing sparks the human creativeness fairly just like the query, what got here earlier than? Philosophers, theologians, and numerous religions have spent millennia pontificating on what got here earlier than humanity as we all know it at this time. It may be argued that few archaeological websites have completed as a lot because the Peking Man Web site, also referred to as Zhoukoudian, in serving to us find out about our most historical ancestors. While a number of individuals are conversant in the Peking Man, few know the tragic, winding story of the Peking Man Web site.

A Nice Begin: Discovering the Peking Man Web site

The Peking Man Web site, or Zhoukoudian, is positioned within the Fangshan District of Beijing, China. It’s a comparatively younger web site, with explorations solely starting in 1918. The primary man on the scene was the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson.

Explorations began in an space known as Rooster Bone Hill , so-called as a result of the realm was rife with what gave the impression to be small bones. What the locals had misidentified as rooster bones had been rodent fossils. Andersson knew he was onto one thing particular straight off the bat stating, “Right here is primitive man, now all we have now to do is use him!”

Rodent fossils are attention-grabbing, however the pleasure didn’t actually begin till 1921. It was then that Andersson and his American colleague, paleontologist Walter W. Granger, had been led to a brand new web site, Dragon Bone Hill . Dragon Bone Hill actually has a greater ring to it than Rooster Bones Hill.

Reasonably than dragon bones, they got here throughout one thing else that didn’t belong there, white quartz overseas to that space of China. Both that they had stumbled upon a dragon’s hoard or seemingly proof that primitive man had lived within the space.

Excavation started in 1921, adopted by a second in 1923, led by Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky, one in every of Andersson’s assistants. They unearthed a number of materials which they despatched again to Uppsala College in Sweden for evaluation. It was a gradual course of, however the outcome was that in 1926 Andersson was in a position to announce the invention of two human molars.

A 12 months later Zdansky cautiously revealed his findings, stating they believed that they had discovered proof of primitive man on the web site. Quickly paleontologists from world wide descended on the realm trying to make a reputation for themselves.

A reconstruction of Peking Man, who was discovered on the Peking Man Web site in Beijing, China within the early twentieth century, on the Chinese language Nationwide Museum. (Gary Todd / CC0)

Stepping Up a Gear: The Zhoukoudian Undertaking

One of many many individuals excited by Zdansky’s paper was the Canadian paleontologist Davidson Black. Black was working on the Peking Union Medical School and wasted no time making use of to the Rockefeller Basis for analysis funding.

The funding was shortly accepted and in 1927 the Zhoukoudian Undertaking started excavations underneath the watchful eye of Chinese language paleontologist Li Jie. Within the fall of 1927, one other tooth was unearthed. Black proposed the tooth got here from a beforehand undiscovered species that he dubbed Sinanthropus pekinensis .

The subsequent 12 months but extra fossils had been uncovered. Tooth, most of a juvenile’s jaw, and an grownup jaw with three enamel had been all discovered. These netted Black one other spherical of funding, which he used to arrange a laboratory.

Defending Heritage: The Cenozoic Analysis Laboratory

There was just one drawback. The Chinese language had been getting greater than somewhat anxious. Western researchers had a nasty behavior of taking necessary discoveries residence with them. Because the outdated joke goes, what’s one thing that appears British however isn’t? Many of the British Museum !

In 1927 a Chinese language geologist known as Weng Wenhao drafted an settlement with all of the Zhoukoudian scientists stating that each one stays keep in China. In 1928 the Chinese language authorities went a step additional, any exportation of Chinese artifacts or archaeological discoveries to the west was declared an “imperialistic assault.”

If Western researchers wished to check Chinese language artifacts, they had been to take action in China. To make sure that his analysis might proceed Black organized for his employer, the Peking Union Medical School, the Geological Survey of China, and the Rockefeller Basis to staff up. The outcome? The Cenozoic Analysis Laboratory.

Franz Weidenreich's 1937 reconstruction of a female Peking Man skull. (Franz Weidenreich / Public domain)

Franz Weidenreich’s 1937 reconstruction of a feminine Peking Man cranium. (Franz Weidenreich / Public domain )

A Metaphorical Gold Mine

All of the money and time had been effectively spent. In 1929 an nearly full skullcap was found. This was just the start and shortly a wealth of human stays, stone instruments and proof of potential hearth use had been discovered. The Peking Man Web site was the best Homo erectus web site on this planet.

Even Black’s demise couldn’t gradual issues down. Discovered lifeless in his tent with a skullcap on his desk he was shortly changed. Regardless of the primitive situations on the web site, it drew within the nice and the nice of the Paleontology world. All in all, over 200 human fossils from greater than 40 distinctive people had been found.

Tragedy Strikes and the Specimens Disappear

Sadly, this is not the top of the story. In 1937 excavations on the Peking Man Web site floor to a halt with the Japanese invasion of China. The combating between the 2 was significantly brutal. It was reported that employees on the web site had been tortured and murdered with at the very least three being bayoneted to demise.

In 1941 it was determined that the discoveries wanted to be safeguarded and so it was determined that america Marine Corps would transport the fossils from the Peking Union Medical School to the SS President Harrison which was scheduled to dock at Qinhuangdao port.

Tragically the ship by no means arrived, having been attacked by the Japanese Navy and operating aground. The crates carrying the fossils merely disappeared and nobody appears to know what occurred to them after the ship was sunk.

Rumors abound however have by no means been substantiated. Some declare they someway made their approach onto the Japanese ship Awa Maru . Others stated they had been put onto a special American ship that was finally sunk. Even the Chinese language weren’t freed from suspicion – some believed the fossil had been floor as much as make conventional Chinese language medication.

The rumors finally took a political edge. Through the “Resist America, Support Korea Marketing campaign” of 1950 and 1951 allegations of theft had been made in opposition to America to fire up Anti-American sentiments.

Maybe most promisingly, marine Richard Bowen claimed to have discovered a field stuffed with bones whereas digging a foxhole in Qinhuangdao. This was in 1947 in the course of the Chinese language Civil Struggle. If Bowen’s account is correct that might imply at this time the fossils are buried someplace underneath a highway, warehouse, or car parking zone in modern-day Qinhuangdao.

Some of the animal fossils found at the Peking Man Site seem to have been modified by humans, with evidence of human markings on top of hyena gnaw marks instead of vice versa. Reconstruction of hyenas at the Zhoukoudian Museum. (xiquinhosilva / CC BY 2.0)

A number of the animal fossils discovered on the Peking Man Web site appear to have been modified by people, with proof of human markings on prime of hyena gnaw marks as a substitute of vice versa. Reconstruction of hyenas on the Zhoukoudian Museum. (xiquinhosilva / CC BY 2.0 )


Fortunately copies had been manufactured from the fossils earlier than their loss by Black’s alternative, so not all was misplaced. Excavation recommenced in 1949 and new fossils had been quickly being found. Excavations continued over the subsequent a number of a long time however would face new challenges. Below Mao, the location grew to become extremely necessary in restructuring the Chinese language identification. However researchers had been restricted in that they had been compelled to hyperlink someway any discoveries they made with socialism.

Conversely in the course of the Cultural Revolution researchers had been typically persecuted which impeded their work. Later the location must deal with acid rain and the specter of injury from close by mining.

Fortunately the Peking Man Web site grew to become a world heritage web site in 1987. It not solely provides us an necessary glimpse into the lives of our earliest ancestors. It additionally provides a tragic glimpse of our most up-to-date. The historical past of the Peking Man Web site is one in every of worldwide cooperation, conflict, human greed, and persecution earlier than as soon as once more circling again round to worldwide cooperation.

Prime picture: A duplicate of the Peking Man cranium, as a result of all of the originals vanished, from the Peking Man Web site, on show on the Paleozoological Museum of China. Supply: Yan Li / CC BY-SA 3.0

By Robbie Mitchell

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