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Peking Man

Republished here from UNESCO "The Peking Man World Heritage Site at Zhoukoudian" website.
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The village of Zhoukoudian
The village of Zhoukoudian.

Zhoukoudian is a small village situated about 50 km southwest of Beijing. Embraced by a chain of mountains from the northwest and rolling hills from the northeast, the village opens to the vast Huabei plains. One half kilometer north, one finds a narrow pass leading to a basin. Baerhe stream wriggles out of the pass and flows down south. It passes then to the west of Zhoukoudian and finally drains into Liulihe about 10 km south of the village. The Peking Man Site is just on the west side of Zhoukoudian Village.

The exposure of sedimentary strata around Zhoukoudian is quite extraordinary, especially those of the Pliocene and Pleistocene, and therefore attract geologists to visit the area. On the other hand, the area also bears rich Ordovician limestone with which the local habitants make lime. It is by quarrying the limestone that local habitants find, in some fissures, the so-called Dragon Bones, which scientists call fossils.


In February 1918, Johann Gunnar Andersson, a famous Swedish geologist and archaeologist, was told that there were some fossils at what was called Chicken-bone Hill near Zhoukoudian. He was then serving as an adviser on mineral affairs in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce of the Chinese Government. He showed much interest and, in the following month, made a survey at the hill where a lot of rodent fossil was collected. The rodent fossil was taken as chicken bones by local people and the Chicken-bone Hill was so named. The latter is nominated later as Locality 6 of the Peking Man Site. This discovery of the locality is not so important, but the survey led to a series of investigations in the region.

In 1921, when Andersson and Otto Zdansky, an Austrian paleontologist, made another survey at Zhoukoudian, local people informed them that there were more fossils on Dragon Bone Hill. They started an excavation and found some animal fossils and quartz fragments. The excavation brought along the discovery of two human-like teeth. One of them was an upper molar. It was found during the excavation. Another one was an unerupted lower premolar. It was found while preparing the fossil at the Institute of Paleontology of Upsala University in Sweden. One year later, they continued the excavation at the locality. At the welcome ceremony for the Swedish Prince's visit to China on the 22nd of October in 1926, Andersson announced the discovery of two teeth of early man from Zhoukoudian. The news astonished the scientific world since at that time there had not been any discovery of any such ancient human fossil in China nor any other country in Asia.

Dr. Davidson Black, a Canadian anthropologist and Dean of the Anatomy Department of Peiping Union Medical College, thoroughly studied the upper molar found in 1921. He nominated the specimen under Hominidae, a new genus, and a new species, "Sinanthropus pekinensis Black and Zdansky". An American geologist, A. William Grabau, gave it a popular name - "Peking Man". According to the development of anthropology, the species is nowadays attributed to Homo erectus pekinensis. Many people, however, still call it Peking Man.

Thanks to the findings of hominid fossil teeth, Dr. Wenhao Weng, the director of the Geological Survey of China, and Dr. Black prepared an agreement in February of 1927 - "Co-operative research between Geological Survey of China and Peiping Union Medical College on the Tertiary and Quaternary deposits of northern China". The research was then supported by Rockefeller Foundation. The systematic excavation of Zhoukoudian Site was undertaken thereafter.

In 1928, Dr C. C. Young, a famous Chinese paleontologist, and Wenzhong Pei, a young Chinese geologist joined the excavation. Two lower jaws of Peking Man were unearthed in this year. To make the excavation more successful, Dr Weng and Dr Black established "Cenozoic Research Laboratory" in 1929.

Within the research framework of the laboratory, Father Teilhard de Chardin, an eminent French paleontologist, and C. C. Young studied the fossiliferous deposits at Zhoukoudian and divided them into 10 layers in 1929. And the most important discovery of all was made on the 2nd of December in 1929. It was in a branching cave where a fissure crosses the main cave that Pei found the first and almost complete skull cap of Peking Man in the red sandy clay which is equivalent to the 10th layer in the main section. The discovery attracted great attention from scientific circles. The two human-like teeth found before were not enough to convince everyone that they belong to Peking Man, but the skullcap gives more anatomical proof and was much more convincing.

The first Peking Man Skull-cap discovered
The first Peking Man Skull-cap discovered.

In the history of paleoanthropology, the discovery of Peking Man was not the first one of its kind; however, the discovery established a definite status of this kind in the human evolutionary history. In 1891-92, a Dutch scientist, Dubois (1858-1940), found a hominid fossil of an ancient man at Java, Indonesia. A skullcap, a broken mandible, three teeth, and a large femur were unearthed. In 1894, Dubois named the specimens Pithecanthropus erectus, that is, erected ape-man. Dubois took the specimens to Holland in 1895 and it was immediately known all over the world.

Dr. Pei Wenzhong in 1979
Dr. Pei Wenzhong in 1979.

Heated debate arose: one party claimed the fossil to be of human, although they are crude and robust, while Dubois and his followers argued that the fossil occupies the stage of transitional form between ape and man. Someone argued that the fossils were of extinct large long-armed ape, or orangutan. Others claimed the fossils are of an idiot or abnormal man.

As another representative of ape man, Peking Man came on stage under such historical background. However, the fate of findings concerning Peking Man appeared as irrefutable proof. Homo erectus is different from the ape in physical characters and cranial capacity. He was able to engage in creative behavior, develop culture, control fire, and hunt big animals. The discovery of Peking Man enabled one to solve the long-lasting polemics that had continued since the discovery of Java man in the 19th century and proved that Homo erectus evolved from the ape. It has established the erect man stage which occupies the intermediate stage in human evolution. The discovery brought a sudden progress in the theory of human origin and evolution. Peking Man stands as an everlasting monument in the history of paleoanthropological research.

Until today, Peking Man holds as ever a realistic and scientific value. The Peking Man Site is representing the most comprehensively and systematically studied site of Homo erectus. The Peking Man Site also provides the more precise scientific data for the study of the evolution, behavior, and paleoenvironment of Homo erectus than contemporary African and European sites.

Just after the discovery of the first skullcap of Peking Man, the second skullcap was discovered in the spring of 1930. It was found and restored from a block of sediments from Locus nearby that of the first skullcap and brought back to the Cenozoic Research Laboratory.

In 1932, the scale of the excavation was large and daily employment of workers was more than one hundred. Within a square kilometer sphere, excavation of different Loci was often carried out simultaneously.

Since 1935, excavation was under the charge of Mr. Jia Lan-po, world famous archeologist. In the following excavations, the most fruitful year was in 1936, three complete skullcaps were unearthed.

The excavation was interrupted at first by the Second World War in which the five skullcaps of Peking Man were lost and then again by the Civil War.

In 1949, only a short time after the Liberation, the excavation that had been suspended for 12 years was resumed. Since then in 1951, 1958-1960, and 1978-1980 excavation was in progress. In the excavation of 1959, another relatively complete mandible, attributable to an aged female, was found in layer 10.

Peking Man teeth unearthed from 1949 to 1951
Peking Man teeth unearthed from 1949 to 1951.

In 1966, under the charge of Pei Wenzhong, a frontal, an occipital, and a tooth were found. A complete skullcap was reassembled with these newly unearthed skull fossils and the temporal bones excavated respectively in 1934 and 1936. They belong to the same individual. This is so far the only original specimen of the skullcap of Peking Man.

From 1921 to 1966, unearthed Peking Man fossils were six nearly complete crania or skullcaps, 19 large fragments of skulls, numerous small fragments of skulls, 15 incomplete mandibles, 157 isolated teeth, three pieces of humerus, one clavicular, one lunate, and a tibia.

A frontal and an occipital unearthed in 1966
A frontal and an occipital unearthed in 1966.

Like other erect man who appeared in Middle Pleistocene, the skeletal morphology of Peking Man, excluding the skull, is rather similar to that of modern man. The only difference is that the perichondrial bone of the appendicular is thicker and the endochondral cavity smaller in Peking Man than in modern man. Based on femoral length, Peking man's height is about 156 cm for the male and 144 cm for the female. His skull, if compared with that of modern man is robust, low and flat, the supraorbital or eye brow is protruded forward, and the occipital bone is apparently of a sharp angle. The cranial capacity is larger compared with Homo abilis of South Africa and Java man of Indonesia, but smaller than that of modern man. The average cranial capacity of Peking Man is measured 1059 ml. The tooth of Peking Man is larger and more robust than that of Homo sapiens. An enamel ring, or cingulum, on the tooth crown is a characteristic of early man.

Anthropologists and archaeologists alike agree that the morphological evolution was slower than the change in the behavior and ways of living. The tool making technology can be the important quantitative criterion to evaluate human progress. Archaeologists confirm that the development of stone tools made by Peking Man shows the progress of Peking Man better than his physical remains.

Besides Peking Man fossils, a lot of mammal fossils, artifacts, and ashes are also found at the site. They are excellent material for the study of human evolution and prehistory.

According to brief statistics made in 1955, the excavation of the Peking Man Site took 1,873 days with extended 178,965 work days. The sediments dug out were about 20,000 cubic meters at the main localities, 4,200 cubic meters elsewhere. The restorable specimens collected were 1,221 boxes, or 375 cubic meters. To speak on the grand scale of excavation, there is no such undertaking ever in the history of excavation in the world. A brief summary of the report on the results of excavation is as follows:

The stone tools and the brought-in unused rock materials from outside are no less than 100,000 pieces and the examined items are more than 17,000 pieces.

Peking Man makes tools with vein quartz, quartz crystals, flint, and sandstones. People of this cave not only use cobble and boulder as raw material but also collected vein quartz exposed by the weathering process in the fissures of limestone, coal, and granites. Peking Man applies three flaking techniques: Block-on-Block, or Anvil technique, direct percussion, and bipolar technique.

The artifacts' industries of Peking Man can be divided into three stages. In the early industry stage, the artifacts are mostly middle to large sized. The small sized tools are very rare. The tools are mostly made of quartz, but important tools were made of cobbles (pebble) of sand stone and others. In the middle industry stage, anvil technique was in fact discarded with the replacement of bipolar technique as main flaking techniques. The use of quartz very much increased and the trend of smaller tool making became apparent. The large and heavy tools became rare. In the late stage, the tools became even smaller. The stone tools are of better quality. In this period, the quality of raw rock materials for tool making was greatly improved. As a result, fine-grained milky white, or semi-translucent quartz, had definitely increased in number.

Another mark of Peking Man's cultural progress is the use of fire. At the locality there are four ash layers interspersed relatively widely. The uppermost ash layer is found on the huge limestone floor of the third layer west to Gezitang. There the limestone floor between the west-east walls of the cave stretches 12 meters in width with a thickness of about 5 meters. Two big piles of ash residues remained on this big limestone block. Peking Man utilized the limestone floor as their habitation site so the ash residue was deposited. This piling of ash suffices to tell Peking Man had the ability to control fire.

Middle upper ash layer, or the 4th layer, is very thick. The thickest part is more than 6 meters. In this ash layer, there was a large quantity of stone tools and fossils of micro mammals, i.e. rodents and bats etc. The middle lower ash layer is between Layer 8 and Layer 9. The thickest part is near the southern fissure and is 4 meters in thickness. Lower ash layer is at layer 10. The thickness of ash residue is around 1 meter. The ash residue appears purple, yellow, white, and black. The black materials were distributed usually at the bottom part and were easy to be differentiated from other sediments. Ash residue in color is clear, the quality is not at all granules, contains much moisture, and is light when dehydrated.

Black material is treated chemically and the carbon is extracted. It is not of oxidized manganese. Among the black material of the bottom portion of Gezitang, semi-burnt charcoal was found. This, without a doubt, proves that the black material is a botanical carbon.

In the ash residue deposit, there was a quantity of burnt stone and charred bones. Burnt limestone turned into powder and charred bones changed color of between various hues of black, purple, white, gray, and green etc. Some of them were cracked and have been transformed by fire. Charred hackberry seeds were found in quantity as well. Many of them were black, purple, and grayish white etc.

How did Peking Man know to make fire and control it? There is no conclusive answer to the question yet; however, our deductive thesis is as follows: in view of the primitive status, Peking Man could not invent fire-building, but he was able to get the kindling material from bush or prairie fires in the field. In nature, there are plenty of occasions of natural combustion: volcanic fire may catch up the surrounding plants, thunder and lightening may cause fire in forests, natural combustion may occur in thickly wooded areas. One could obtain kindling material from a bush fire by means of using a burning twig of a tree branch, or other combustible objects, and bring the kindling to the cave. Due to the scarcity of fire, preserving the fire after bringing back the kindling is valuable and important. One way to keep the fire is to add firewood or brushwood or to keep burnt charcoal under ash-earth cover in an idle state to preserve the fire, and when necessary it is essential to blow air underneath to expedite fire.

Peking Man's use of fire is a great achievement. The use of fire enabled defense of wild beasts in the cave. It also provided light during night, provided warmth in the habitation, and offered cooking of raw food which helped digestion, thereby promoted early man's physical condition and health.

The sporo-pollen analysis made it clear that the period when Peking Man resided at this site was during the interglacial period. It was almost similar as nowadays or slightly warmer. The field and mountain valley were vegetated with deciduous trees and grasslands. Mountains and hilly areas were abounding in coniferous trees.

In the temperate zone, there grew a great variety of species and families of trees. It not only supplied the firewood, but also edible fruits and seeds. Yet the hackberry seed that is found in the cave deposits was apparently a food of Peking Man. Sporo-pollen analysis proves that there were many species grown outside the cave such as nut, hazel nut, pine, elm, and rose etc. The fruits and seeds were the constituents of Peking Man's diet.

Hunting was an important means of early man's adaptation to environment. Because meat was the source of calories and protein supply needed for man, Peking Man not only depended on gathering, but also on hunting. According to nearly a hundred species of fossil mammals found in the cave, Peking Man could hunt small animals as well as large animals.

Since Peking Man could use tools, he could catch animals of his size. The deer fossil found inside the cave was calculated in terms of mandibles. The thick-jaw-bone deer amounted more than two thousand individuals. The Pseudaxis grayi amounted not less than one thousand individuals. The two species of deer must have been the major target for hunting by Peking Man. Analysis of the deer antlers shows that Peking Man hunted more of Peking sikine deer during the summer and early autumn and hunted the thick-jaw-bone deer in the early winter.

Peking Man was a cave dweller, tool maker, fire user, gatherer, and hunter. In view of fossil records and cultural remains, he was superb in his capability of adapting himself to environment with his adaption of physiological structure and technical ability.

Usually gatherer is a sort of simple labor carried out by a single individual, whereas hunting requires evidently complex work, especially when hunting large animals as it risks much danger. A cooperative plan and work are necessary among individuals, therefore it infers that Peking Man must have led a group life when hunting deer as we found various species of animal fossils in quantity. Early man hunters did not consume their game at the killing site, but carried it into the cave and shared it with other dwellers.

Due to physiological condition such as pregnancy and fostering, children and women could not participate in the hunt. Females especially could not hunt the animals which were larger and ran much faster than them. Therefore, perhaps Peking Man already reached to the stage of specialization of labor activities. Even today in hunting-gathering societies it is the male who engages actively in hunting and the female plays the role of gathering. Peking Man society started the mode of specialization of labor.

During the long 300 thousand year period, Peking Man's stone tool industry must have evolved progressively forward. Clearly, first practical education must have started within Peking Man society very early. Each generation can never develop a tool-making technique suddenly, and crude types of tools cannot be evolved to some sophisticated superb tools of much retouches, i.e. superb scrapers or a complicated pointed tool. In modern society as well, complicated and advanced technology is not accomplished without education and practice. Tool making techniques are transmitted from adult and an elderly person to the generation of younger age.

The longevity of Peking Man is quite short. After paleoanthropologists' statistical analysis, about 68.2% of Peking Man died before 14 years old, and only 4.5% of Peking Man lived longer than 50 years old. It seems that his living conditions were very hard.


Since the systematic excavation of the Peking Man Site in 1927, more than 20 valuable localities have been discovered and excavated. Among them, four well-studied localities are as follows:

The Peking Man Cave or Locality 1:

On the western side of Zhoukoudian Village, there are two parallel hills. The one on the east is lower and called Dragon-bone Hill. It is 220 meters long in north-south direction and 190 meters wide in east-west direction. Its peak is 140.6 meters above sea level and is 66 meters above the river bed of Baerhe. On the northern slop of the Dragon-bone Hill, there is a huge cave. Judging by the deposits inside it, the cave has a length of about 140 meters east-west, but its north-south span is about 40 meters in width at the most. Its western end is the narrowest and is only 2 meters wide. On the northern side of the cave, a fissure is extending northwards and its width is about 7 meters.

Peking Man cave is a karst cave developed in limestone of Ordovician age (about 450 million years ago). Since Zhoukouhe Stream and the karst cave were connected with each other, a quantity of sand-gravel flew inside the cave. The rough and deep ditches inside the cave were gradually filled, thereby forming a flat surface. The eastern entrance gradually expanded as weathering took place. After that, Peking Man entered the cave through eastern hill to settle there. He was at first inhabited at the eastern part of the cave near the entrance. The roof portion was completely preserved but there was sufficient light inside the cave so as to facilitate their activities without difficulty. Due to the collapse of roof rocks of the eastern cave, the entrance became completely blocked and Peking Man was obliged to turn to the western entrance of the cave. The period the cave was almost completely filled with sediments might be sometime around 230,000 years before present. When Peking Man left the cave and moved elsewhere it was no longer suitable for hominids' habitation.

Before excavation, the cave was completely filled with deposits more than 50 meters in depth. The deposits were divided by scientists into 17 layers from top to bottom. The absolute age of the 13th layer is about 730,000 years old, that is to say, layers 14 to 17 are formed before the Middle Pleistocene. Layer 10, the lowest layer bearing Peking Man fossil, is dated about 500,000 years ago, while Layer 3, the up most layer bearing Peking Man fossil, is dated from 230,000 to 250,000 years ago. Thus, Peking Man had lived in the cave for about 260,000 years.

Locality 4 or New Cave:

The cave is situated 70 meters south of Locality 1. It measures 4 meters high, 9.5 meters wide, and 116 meters above sea level. Its entrance is formed by a narrow and long fissure and opens southwards. Its terminal end enlarges to form a big hall. The entrance was blocked by mixed deposits. It was opened after the excavation in 1973. A left upper first molar of early Homo sapiens, an intermediate form between Homo erectus of Locality 1 and late Homo sapiens of Upper Cave, was discovered in the cave. Some paleoanthropologists call the human fossil New Cave Man. This locality yielded also a small quantity of stone tools, ash layer, burnt stone, charred bones, hackberry seeds, and more than 40 species of mammalian fossils. Its absolute age is dated about 200 000 to 100,000 years before present. Its geological age is attributed to Late Pleistocene.

Locality 15:

Situated 70 meters south of Locality 1, about 10 meters west of Locality 4. The original appearance of the locality was a cave or a fissure, but it completely collapsed and left only piles of broken rocks. It was discovered in 1932 and excavated from 1934 to 1937. The excavated area measures 13 meters east-west, 16 meters north-south. The deposits measure 10 meters in depth which can be divided into three layers. The upper layer is mainly of light yellow earth with worm-like wedges of calcified substance in central portions. The middle layer consists of a large mass of limestone, ash with charred bone, and hackberry seeds. The lower layer contains light reddish earth with pieces of limestone. Stone tools and mammalian fossils were distributed in all of these layers. The excavated stone tools count about 10 thousands pieces include cores, flakes, etc. It is one of the representative middle Paleolithic industries of China. Discovered mammalian fauna is composed of 33 species, such as thick jaw deer, Gray's sika, rhinos, sheep etc. Its age is equivalent to that of New Cave, that is, the early stage of the Late Pleistocene.

Professor Jia Lanpo thinks that the New Cave and Locality 15 might connect with Locality 1 by some unknown tunnels and therefore they are worth of new excavation.

Upper Cave:

Situated at the upper part of Dragon-bone Hill, hence the cave was so named. The northern part of the cave is close to the southern fissure of Peking Man Cave. The original entrance of Upper Cave is open to the north. The altitude of the cave is about 125 meters. The cave is about 13.5 meters long, 5.6 meters wide and composed of 4 parts: cave entrance, upper chamber, lower chamber and lower recess. It was discovered in 1930 during investigation of the border of the Peking Man Cave deposit and was excavated in 1933-34. The bottom layer of Upper Cave was directly deposited above the first layer of Peking Man Cave deposit.

Three well preserved skulls and a skull cap of Upper Cave Man were unearthed from the lower chamber. Some pelvic and femur bones were found nearby the skulls. All human bones represented about 10 individuals. Anthropologists have attributed Upper Cave Man to Late Homo sapiens. His absolute age is dated about 27 thousand years before present. On the left side of the skull of an elderly Homo sapiens, a perforated shell and perforated fox's canine were recovered. Animal fossils of entire skeletons were found and interpreted to be there after falling into natural traps.

The deposits of Upper Cave are composed of pine tree loam and limestone breccia. The bottom earth is reddish and partly concretion. From 20 meters deep, about 860 cubic meters of deposits were removed at the time of excavation. There were 25 artifacts, a polished antler, a bone needle, 141 ornaments including 125 perforated animal teeth, three perforated shells, a perforated ovoid pebble, one perforated supra-orbital of fish, four bones perforated with transverse farrows, and 7 perforated stone beads. In addition to fish and amphibian fossils, 47 species of mammalian fossils were found. The geological age is of late stage of the Late Pleistocene.

To summarize, human or animal fossils or cultural relics were found at 26 localities in Zhoukoudian area. Among the localities yielded human fossils, locality 1 yielded Homo erectus fossils, early Homo sapiens fossils are from locality 4 or New Cave, and late Homo sapiens fossils are found in Upper Cave. As to artifacts, early Paleolithic tools were found at localities 1 and 13, middle Paleolithic tools are from localities 4 and 15, and late Paleolithic tools are found from the Upper Cave. Thus, each stages of Paleolithic industry were unearthed at different localities of the Site. Fossil discoveries representing various stages were also abundant in the Site. There are Late Cenozoic fishes from locality 14, and from the top deposit in locality 12. The mammalian fauna of Zhoukoudian locality 1 is the typical Middle Pleistocene fauna of North China and Upper Cave yielded the typical Late Pleistocene fauna of North China.

To protect and conserve the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian well, the State Council announced in 1961 the designation of the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian as one of the first State Key Cultural Heritage Units under Protection. In 1983, Beijing Municipal Government designated the Protection Area for Preservation of the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian.

The site is not only an exceptional reminder of the human societies of the Asian continent hundreds and thousands of years ago, but also illustrates that the process of hominization can only be fully apprehended on a world wide scale with the help of many such examples. Because the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian bears unique testimony to a civilization which has disappeared and bears witness to the human communities of the Asian continent from the Middle Pleistocene to the Late Pleistocene (Paleolithic Age), it was formally inscribed on the "World Heritage List" in December 1987 at the eleventh session of UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The inscription of the Peking Man Site on the World Heritage List confirms the exceptional and universal value of the cultural site which requires protection for the benefit of all humanity. The site is therefore not only of China, but also of the world as a whole.


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