One rendering of Peking Man

Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinensis) was not a single individual, but a species of Homo erectus who were very similar to modern humans, having a large brain, and similar skull and bone sizes, but who had heavy brows and large, chinless jaws. They lived between 750,000 and 200,000 years ago.

"Peking Man" refers to a collection of six complete or nearly complete skulls, 14 cranial fragments, six facial fragments, 15 jawbones, 157 teeth, one collarbone, three upper arms, one wrist, seven thighbones, and one shinbone found in caves and a quarry in Zhoukoudian outside of Peking (Beijing). It is believed the remains came from 40 individuals of both sexes. Both Peking Man and Java Man have been categorized as members of the hominid species Homo erectus.

The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominid bones ever found at one site and were the first evidence that early man reached China. It was first thought the bones were between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. Now it is believed that they are 400,000 to 780,000 years old based on dating the sediments in which the fossils were found. No chemical tests or research were ever done on the bones before they mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of World War II.

Paul Rincon of the BBC wrote: “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. Palaeontologists later assigned these members of the human lineage to the species Homo erectus. The pre-war Peking Man fossils vanished in 1941 whilst being transported to the US for safekeeping. Luckily, the palaeontologist Franz Weidenreich had made casts for researchers to study.” [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009]

In March 2009, scientists announced that, using new and more accurate dating method, Peking Man may be 750,000 years old, 200,000 years older than what experts previously thought. The study with the new date was conducted by a Chinese-U.S. team led by Guanjun Shen of China's Nanjing Normal University and published in an article in Nature. [Source: Reuters, March 11, 2009]

Reuters reported: “Scientists have used various techniques to try and date the fossils, but a lack of suitable methods for cave deposits has limited their accuracy. Shen and his colleagues used a relatively new method that examines the radioactive decay of aluminum and beryllium in quartz grains, which enabled them to get a more precise age for the fossils. "The analysis dated the finds to around 750,000 years old, some 200,000 years older than previous estimates and indicates a hominin presence in the area through glacial and interglacial cycles. The results should help to build a more reliable chronology of human evolution in East Asia," the researchers wrote.

Good Websites and Sources: Zhoukoudian is where the Peking Man bones were discovered. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO Zhoukoudian site ; Wikipedia on Peking Man Wikipedia ; Wikipedia on Zhoukoudian Wikipedia ; China,org

Homo Erectus

left Peking Man was Homo erectus. Homo erectushad a considerably larger brain than “Homo habilis”, its predecessor. It fashioned more advanced tools (double-edged, teardrop-shaped "hand axes" and "cleavers" ) and controlled fire (based on the discovery of charcoal with erectus fossils). Better foraging and hunting skills, allowed it to exploit its environment better than “Homo habilis” Nickname: Peking Man, Java Man. “Homo erectus” lived for 1.3 million years and spread from Africa to Europe and Asia. Paleontologist Alan Walker told National Geographic, “Homo erectus “ "was the velociraptor of its day. If you could look one in the eyes, you wouldn't want to. It might appear to be human, but you wouldn't connect. You'd be prey."

Geologic Age 2 million years to 100,000 years ago. Homo erectus “ lived at the same time as “Homo habilis “ and “Homo rudolfensis” and later at the same time as Neanderthals and modern humans, but not necessarily in the same places. Linkage to Modern Man: Regarded as a direct ancestor of modern man, May have had primitive language skills. Discovery Sites: Africa and Asia. Homo erectus“ fossils have been found in eastern Africa, southern Africa, Georgia, Algeria, Morocco, China and Java.

Size: The tallest hominin species until modern man. The body looked almost like a modern human. males: 1.78 meters (5 feet 10 inches) tall, 139 pounds (63 kilograms) females: 1.6 meters (5 feet 3 inches) tall, 53 kilograms (117 pounds). “Homo erectus” was considerably larger than its forebears. Scientists speculate that the reason for this is that they ate more meat. Brain Size: 800 to 1000 cubic centimeters. Enlarged over the years from the size of a one -year-old infant to that of a 14-year-old boy (about three-fourths the size of a modern adult human brain). A 1.2-million-year-old skull from Olduvai Gorge had a cranial capacity of 1,000 cubic centimeters, compared to 1,350 cubic centimeters for a modern human and 390 cubic centimeters for a chimp.

Zhoukoudian: Peking Man Site

20080211-1140 pkm-upper cave world heritage.jpg
Peking Man cave

The site where Peking Man was found is in a cave on a low hill called Dragon-Bone Mountain at Zhoukoudian, 42 kilometers to the southwest of Beijing. Declared an important National Cultural Protected Unit in 1961 and named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987, the site is set into a mountainside, with running water available nearby. Natural caves exist in these mountains. The weather was warmer in the Peking Man period. Pekin Man is believed to have lived here continuously for 300,000 years. Evidence of this habitation includes bones, stone tools, and traces of fire and other signs of occupation.[Source: China’s Museums ++]

The main cave measures 140 meters from east to west and 53 meters from north to south. At twilight on a cold early winter's evening in 1929, archaeologists crawled into the space of this cave, using a candle for light, and found the famous Peking Man skull. Thousands of Paleolithic stone tools have been found in the Peking Man cave and neighboring caves. They come in many shapes and are made from several types of stone. Some of these can be seen in the exhibition cases of the museum. Through long periods of experimentation, Beijing Man became familiar with the different uses and chipping qualities of different kinds of stone. ++

In 1973, the so-called 'New Cave Man' was discovered at Zhoukoudian, where hominid remains dating to 200,000 to 100,000 years ago were found. Around 20,000 years ago, the humans living in the vicinity of Zhoukoudian were given the name Mountaintop Cave Man following the discovery of their remains in a cave above the Beijing Man Cave. Discovered in 1933, the cave contained some interesting artifacts, including an 82-millimeter bone needle, with a shiny surface, slightly arced in shape, and very sharp side. A very fine instrument was sued to hollow out a tiny hole. It is believed that Mountaintop Cave Man sewed and clothed himself with animal hides and leather. Among the other objects found at the site have been earrings, animal teeth with holes in them for stringing, fishbones, ocean shells, stone beads, and bones carved in particular ways. ++

Zhoukoudian: Peking Man Site: a UNESCO World Heritage Site


Zhoukoudian was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. According to UNESCO: The 480-hectare “Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian is a Pleistocene hominid site on the North China Plain. This site lies... at the juncture of the North China Plain and the Yanshan Mountains. Adequate water supplies and natural limestone caves in this area provided an optimal survival environment for early humans. Scientific work at the site is still under way. So far, ancient human fossils, cultural remains and animal fossils from 23 localities within the property dating from 5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago have been discovered by scientists. These include the remains of Homo erectus pekinensis, who lived in the Middle Pleistocene (700,000 to 200,000 years ago), archaic Homo sapiens of about 200,000–100,000 years ago and Homo sapiens sapiens dating back to 30,000 years ago. At the same time, fossils of hundreds of animal species, over 100,000 pieces of stone tools and evidence (including hearths, ash deposits and burnt bones) of Peking Man using fire have been discovered. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“As the site of significant hominid remains discovered in the Asian continent demonstrating an evolutionary cultural sequence, Zhoukoudian is of major importance within the worldwide context. It is not only an exceptional reminder of the prehistoric human societies of the Asian continent, but also illustrates the process of human evolution, and is of significant value in the research and reconstruction of early human history. ~

“The discovery of hominid remains at Zhoukoudian and subsequent research in the 1920s and ‘30s excited universal interest, overthrowing the chronology of Man’s history that had been generally accepted up to that time. The excavations and scientific work at the Zhoukoudian site are thus of significant value in the history of world archaeology, and have played an important role in the world history of science.”

Peking Man, Fire and Cannibalism

The oldest largely accepted evidence of fire used by an ancestor of modern man is a group of burned animals bones found among remains of Homo erectus in the same caves in Zhoukoudian, China where Peking man was found. The burned bones have been dated to be about 500,000 years old. In Europe, there is evidence of fire that is 400,000 years old.

Homo erectus is believed to have learned to control fire about one million years ago. Some scientist speculate that early hominids gathered smoldering wood from lighting-ignited fires and used it to cook meat. Some scientists suggest that fire may have been tamed as early as 1.8 million years ago based on the theory that Homo erectus needed to cook food such as tough meat, tubers and roots to make them edible. Cooked food is more edible and easy to digest. It takes a chimpanzee about an hour to absorb 400 calories from eating raw meat. By contrast it takes a modern human only a couple minutes to wolf down the same amount of calories in a sandwich.

There is some evidence of ritual cannibalism in Peking man. Peking Man skulls had been smashed at the base, possibly by other Peking men to gain access to the brains, a practice common among cannibals.

Peking Man Used Fire 600,000 Years Ago, Chinese Scientists Say

Homo erectus Diorama
In 2015, Chinese scientists asserted that Peking Man set up fireplaces and cooked food about 600,000 years ago—the earliest evidence for fire use by a human species. They found fireplaces enclosed by a circle of rocks and burned rocks, soil and bones at the Zhoukoudian site. Gao Xing, with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said archaeologists spent three years excavating the site and found lime that he says resulted from limestone being burned.[Source: Mark Miller, Ancient Origins, July 22, 2015 /*/]

The China Daily reported: “A fire site, sintering soil, and burned rocks and bones were uncovered at the site, said Gao Xing."Some of the animal bones were entirely carbonized, turned black both outside and inside," Gao said. "It is safe for us to conclude that this is the result of burning." Fire sites encircled by rocks and lime resulting from the burning of limestone were also found, Gao said. [Source: China Daily, July 19, 2015 |+|]

Ashes, burned bones and rocks, as well as charred seeds were also found at Zhoukoudian fame in 1929, Gao said, leading many archaeologists to agree that Peking Man knew how to use fire. But there has always been skepticism that they resulted from natural fire. "The evidence this time is more convincing," Gao said. "It has been found under the earth untouched, without weather damage. "This shows us that Peking Man could not only keep kindling, but knew how to control fire." |+|

Mark Miller wrote in Ancient Origins: “Although scientists estimate that ancient humans began using fire over a million years ago, it had been unclear when people starting using it on a regular basis, for example, for cooking daily meals. Discoveries earlier this year in Quesem Cave in Israel confirmed people were using fire 300,000 years ago, but the Zhoukoudian find provides even earlier evidence. /*/

Discovery of Peking Man

"Peking Man" was found in a quarry and some caves near the village of Zhoukoudian, 30 miles southwest of Beijing. The first fossils found in the quarry were dug up by villagers who sold them as "dragon bones" to a local folk medicine shop. In the 1920s, a Swedish geologist became fascinated with a human-like tooth believed to be two million years old in the collection of a German physician who hunted fossils in China. He began his own search for fossils, beginning in Beijing and was led by a local farmer to Zhoukoudian, which means Dragon Bone Hill.

Foreign and Chinese archeologists launched a major excavation at Zhoukoudian. The digging intensified when a human molar was found. In December 1929 a complete skullcap was found imbedded in a rock face by a Chinese archeologist clinging to a rope. The skull was presented to the world as the "missing link" between man and monkeys.

Excavations continued through the 1930s and more bones were found along with stone tools and evidence of the use of fire. But before the bones had a chance to be carefully examined, the Japanese invaded China and World War II broke out.

Disappearance of Peking Man

The Peking Man bones were hidden after the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and disappeared in 1941 when Chinese and American scientists decided to ship them to the United States for safekeeping.

skull replica

Before they disappeared the fossils had been packed in crates at the Peking Union Medical College, an American Baptist teaching hospital, where research on the fossils was conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation. The plan was for the crates to be transferred by the Marine Corps to the port of Qinghuangdao, where they were to be loaded onto a ship called the President Harrison for the journey to America. The ship was scheduled to leave on December 8, 1941. But the day before it was to leave, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Marines in charge of watching over the two crates with the bones were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

What happened to the bones remains a mystery. The Chinese have blamed the Americans for the disappearance and the Americans have blamed the Japanese. A Chinese professor told the New York Times, "I think the Japanese opened the boxes thinking they would find weapons or food and when they saw that it was only bones, I think they just kicked it over and threw them away." Fortunately casts were made of the bones.

According to one American military report the crates with the Peking Man bones were delivered to a Swiss warehouse for shipment, but there is no evidence that the crates ever arrived at the warehouse. In the 1970s, a woman appeared who claimed to be the widow of one of the Marines in charge of guarding the fossils. She met a Chicago businessman — who was offering a reward for information on the bones — at top of the Empire State Building, showed him some picture which she said were of a box with the missing fossils and then disappeared and was never heard from again. Most think she was part of a hoax.

Search for Peking Man

In 2005, the Chinese government announced it was launching an all out search to find the Peking Man bones and asked the governments in Japan, South Korea and the United States for help. A number scientists, philanthropists, farmers and con men have also announced their own searches and discoveries.

As of 2006, nearly 100 leads from e-mails, phone calls and letters have been checked out by Chinese investigators. A contract worker who worked at a U.S. military base in Tianjin claims he saw American stash the bones in a secret basement compartment before they fled China. A former Chinese serviceman in Taiwan said he saw them flown in a military cargo plane from Beijing to the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. A man in Henan Province said his grandfather told him a military truck with the bones arrived mysteriously in his village and buried the bones there.

A few Peking man bones remain but they are mixed with thousands of animal bones in boxes and rooms in Beijing and Zhoukoudian. The tags and numbering systems were destroyed during political upheaval during the pre-Communist and post-Communist eras. During the Cultural Revolution a Chinese scholar told the New York Times, "People moved the samples from place to place and they made a mess. In one place the samples were all over the floor and people could walk over them."

“Peking Man” Tooth Found at the Museum in Sweden

Peking Man tooth in Sweden

In March 2015, a tooth from Homo erectus, “Peking Man” was found at the Museum of Evolution, Uppsala University in Sweden. The single tooth was from a Peking Man woman 30 to 40 years old when she died—quite old for that time, scientists say. The tooth was in a rare and important shipment of fossil finds – forgotten for decades in an unopened box in museum storage. [Source: Mark Miller, Ancient Origins, July 22, 2015 /*/]

Uppsala University Professor Per Ahlberg said: the tooth “is a spectacular find. We can see numerous details that tell us about this individual's life. The crown of the tooth is relatively small, which indicates that it belonged to a woman. The tooth is quite worn, so the individual must have been quite old when she died. In addition, two large chips have been knocked out of the enamel, as if hit by something, or perhaps by biting into something really hard such as a bone or a hard nut. At least one of the chips was old when the individual died, since it is partly worn down.” /*/

The tooth, partial skulls, and many other ancient fossils and tools were excavated from Zhoukoudianby Swedish geologist and archaeologist Johann Gunnar Andersson and shipped from China to Sweden for further examination. The collection was huge and some of the boxes were never opened until 2015. /*/

Peking Man: an Ancestor Modern Chinese?

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “Most Chinese palaeontologists — and a few ardent supporters from the West — think that the transitional fossils are evidence that Peking Man was an ancestor of modern Asian people. In this model, known as multiregionalism or continuity with hybridization, hominins descended from H. erectus in Asia interbred with incoming groups from Africa and other parts of Eurasia, and their progeny gave rise to the ancestors of modern east Asians, says Wu. [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

“Support for this idea also comes from artefacts in China. In Europe and Africa, stone tools changed markedly over time, but hominins in China used the same type of simple stone instruments from about 1.7 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. According to Gao Xing, an archaeologist at the IVPP, this suggests that local hominins evolved continuously, with little influence from outside populations. |:|

“Some Western researchers suggest that there is a hint of nationalism in Chinese palaeontologists' support for continuity. “The Chinese — they do not accept the idea that H. sapiens evolved in Africa,” says one researcher. “They want everything to come from China.” Chinese researchers reject such allegations. “This has nothing to do with nationalism,” says Wu. It's all about the evidence — the transitional fossils and archaeological artefacts, he says. “Everything points to continuous evolution in China from H. erectus to modern human.”

But the continuity-with-hybridization model is countered by overwhelming genetic data that point to Africa as the wellspring of modern humans. Studies of Chinese populations show that 97.4% of their genetic make-up is from ancestral modern humans from Africa, with the rest coming from extinct forms such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. “If there had been significant contributions from Chinese H. erectus, they would show up in the genetic data,” says Li Hui, a population geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai. Wu counters that the genetic contribution from archaic hominins in China could have been missed because no DNA has yet been recovered from them. |:|

Legacy of Peking Man

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “On the outskirts of Beijing, a small limestone mountain named Dragon Bone Hill rises above the surrounding sprawl. Along the northern side, a path leads up to some fenced-off caves that draw 150,000 visitors each year, from schoolchildren to grey-haired pensioners. It was here, in 1929, that researchers discovered” Peking Man. “Since then, the central importance of Peking Man has faded. Although modern dating methods put the fossil even earlier — at up to 780,000 years old — the specimen has been eclipsed by discoveries in Africa that have yielded much older remains of ancient human relatives. Such finds have cemented Africa's status as the cradle of humanity — the place from which modern humans and their predecessors spread around the globe — and relegated Asia to a kind of evolutionary cul-de-sac. [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

“But the tale of Peking Man has haunted generations of Chinese researchers, who have struggled to understand its relationship to modern humans. “It's a story without an ending,” says Wu Xinzhi, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. They wonder whether the descendants of Peking Man and fellow members of the species Homo erectus died out or evolved into a more modern species, and whether they contributed to the gene pool of China today. |:|

“Keen to get to the bottom of its people's ancestry, China has in the past decade stepped up its efforts to uncover evidence of early humans across the country. It is reanalysing old fossil finds and pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into excavations. And the government is setting up a $1.1-million laboratory at the IVPP to extract and sequence ancient DNA. |:|

Peking Man skull castes

“The investment comes at a time when palaeoanthropologists across the globe are starting to pay more attention to Asian fossils and how they relate to other early hominins — creatures that are more closely related to humans than to chimps. Finds in China and other parts of Asia have made it clear that a dazzling variety of Homo species once roamed the continent. And they are challenging conventional ideas about the evolutionary history of humanity.” |:|

Image Sources: Peking Man cave, World Heritage Site website; Peking Man bust, World Heritage Site website; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated April 2024

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