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Athena Review, Vol.4, no.1: Homo erectus

Discovering "Peking Man" at Zhoukoudian, China

[Box 2 in Introduction to Homo erectus]

In 1926-7 the Canadian anatomist Davidson Black first identified Sinanthropus pekinensis (“Peking Man”) from several teeth found at a limestone quarry 50 km south of Beijing (fig. 1). A molar and premolar excavated in 1921-1923 at Dragon Bone Hill in Zhoukoudian by paleontologist Otto Zdansky were sent to Black for identification. Black and geologist J. Gunnar Andersson then organized field work led by Birger Bohlin, who found another molar in 1927, enabling Black to make a positive identification.

Expanded excavations by the Chinese paleontologists Z. Yang and W.C. Pei in 1928-1929 found jaw fragments and a well-preserved skull at Zhoukoudian’s Locality 1. When freed of its limestone matrix, the skull was clearly that of a human ancestor, resembling the Trinil 2 skullcap, and vindicating Black’s original identification.

[Fig. 1: The quarry at Zhoukoudian called Dragon Bone Hill (Longghushan) (photo: R.Ciochon).]

Black (fig.2) continued to work on the Zhoukoudian material in his lab at Peking Union Medical College until his premature death in 1934. His work was taken over by the anatomist Franz Weidenreich (1875-1948), who made casts of the growing number of hominid fossils. With Japanese invasions in 1937 he stored the fossils in a bank vault, but was not permitted to remove them from China when World War II broke out. All but a few teeth were subsequently lost. The accurate casts, however, including a relatively large sample of six skulls, permitted Weidenreich’s (1943) detailed identification of Sinanthropus pekinensis. The Chinese skulls resembled those from Java, but had a higher cranial capacity averaging 1000-1100 cc, compared to about 800-900 cc for Pithecanthropus. Both are now classified as Homo erectus.

[Fig. 2: Davidson Black (1884-1934).]


Boaz, N. T. and R.L. Ciochon, 2004. Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo erectus. New York, Oxford University Press.

(see also bibliography in Introduction to Homo erectus)

[Note: This article appears on p.18 of  the printed issue of Athena Review (vol.4, no.1). Copyright © 2004, Athena Publications, Inc.]

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