Homo erectus in Asia

Homo erectus lived 2 million years to 110,000 years ago. He had a considerably larger brain than his predecessor Homo habilis, 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 improved his ability to exploit his environment.

The dating of Java Man Homo erectus bones to around 1.6 million years ago suggests that Homo erectus traveled through China or nearby Southeast Asia to reach Java in Indonesia. Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick wrote in Natural History magazine, “There are a half dozen sites in China dating (more or less convincingly) to between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago.” Some have stone tools. Others have human-like bones. There is some debate as to whether these bones belong to hominins or apes.

Paul Rincon of the BBC wrote: Comparisons with other sites show that Homo erectus survived successive warm and cold periods in northern Asia. Researchers Russell Ciochon and E Arthur Bettis III, from the University of Iowa, US, believe these climatic cycles may have caused the expansion of open habitats, such as grasslands and steppe. These environments would have been rich in mammals that could have been hunted or scavenged by early humans. [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009]

“Recent revised dates for other hominin occupation sites in North-East Asia show that human habitation of the region began about 1.3 million years ago.” Chinese “fossils are a vital component of the Out of Africa migration theory, which proposes that Homo erectus first appeared in Africa around two million years ago before spreading north and east (modern humans, Homo sapiens, would follow much later and supplant all other Homo species). Evidence of the first dispersal comes from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia, where numerous homini fossils dating to 1.75 million years ago have been unearthed. Finds from Java suggest early humans reached South-East Asia by 1.6 million years ago. [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009 ^|^]

“The northern populations represented at Zhoukoudian [Peking Man, See Below] were probably separated from southern populations represented on the island of Java by a zone of sub-tropical forest inhabited by the giant panda, orangutans, gibbons and a giant ape called Gigantopithecus. It is not clear whether H. erectus ever reached Europe; the earliest European fossils have been assigned to the species Homo antecessor. But this classification is disputed, and some researchers believe the Spanish antecessor fossils do indeed belong with H. erectus. Recent discoveries suggest that on the Indonesian island of Flores, Homo erectus, or another early human species, became isolated and evolved into a dwarf species called Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "The Hobbit".” ^|^

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

"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 hominin species Homo erectus.

The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominin 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]

Homo Erectus Sites in China

Finds at Zhoukoudian — where Peking Man was found — encouraged paleontologists to search for more hominin fossils in China. As of 2016, 14 other fossil-bearing sites have since been discovered across the country in the Yuanmou, Tiandong, Jianshi, Yunxian, Lantian, Luonan, Yiyuan, Nanzhao, Nanjing, Hexian, and Dongzhi counties. Yiyuan county in Shandong province is home to a number of paleontological and archaeological finds. One famous fossil, referred to as the "Yiyuan ape-man fossil" is estimated to be 400,000 to 500,000 years old.[Source: Wikipedia]

Hualong Cave — in Pangwang village in Dongzhi County, Anhui Province, China, and situated on the southern bank of Yangtze on the side of Meiyuan Hill — has interested scientists since 2004 when a farmer accidentally found bones that were later identified as mammalian fossils. Excavations started in 2006 by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences yielded many stone tools and over 30 human fossils, and animal bones including those of elephant-like stegodons, giant tapirs, and giant pandas. A Homo erectus fossil (dubbed Dongzhi Man) was described in 2014; a 300,000-year-old archaic human was discovered in 2019. Paleolithic age tools include bone tools used for cutting animals but not for hunting. Of the more than 100 stone tools discovered, scrapers were the most abundant tools.

Dongzhi Man is considered as among the most well-preserved Homo erectus specimens. Discovered in 2006 along with stone artifacts and animal fossils, it consists of two skull fragments and one separated (lower molar) teeth. The skull fragments were believed to be from the same individual.It is different from other fossils of the same species including Peking Man found in China. The teeth surfaces (enamel-dentine junctions) are much simpler and the cusps are sharper.

Lantian Man

right Lantian Man is a subspecies of Homo erectus known from an almost complete mandible from Chenchiawo Village discovered in 1963, and a partial skull from Gongwangling Village discovered in 1964. Both are situated in Lantian County on the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi Province. The former dates to about 710,000 to 684,000 years ago, and the latter 1.65 million to 1.59 million years ago. This makes Lantian Man the second-oldest firmly dated H. erectus beyond Africa (after 1.8-million-year-old homo erectus fossils in Georgia) and the oldest in East Asia. The fossils were first described by Woo Ju-Kan in 1964, who considered the subspecies an ancestor to Peking Man (H. e. pekinensis). [Source: Wikipedia]

Like Peking Man, Lantian Man has a heavy brow ridge, a receding forehead, possibly a sagittal keel running across the midline of the skull, and exorbitantly thickened bone. The skull is small by absolute measure, and has narrower postorbital constriction. The teeth are proportionally large compared to other Asian H. erectus. The brain volume of the Gongwangling skull is about 780 cc, similar to contemporary archaic humans in Africa, but much smaller than later Asian H. erectus and modern humans.

Lantian Man inhabited the mild grasslands at the northern base of the Qinling Mountains. For stone tools, Lantian Man manufactured mainly heavy-duty tools including choppers, spheroids, heavy-duty scrapers, handaxes, picks, cleavers. The latter three are characteristic of the Acheulean industry, which is usually only applied to African and Western Eurasian sites. It appears the Acheulean persisted far longer in this region than elsewhere. Nanjing Man

Nanjing Man

Male and female Homo erectus skulls (sometimes referred to as Nanjing Man) were discovered in 1993 in Tangshan Cave near Shanghai. They have been dated to be between 580,000 to 620,000 years old using mass spectrometric U-series dating technique.

Nanjing Man is possibly Homo pekinensis (the Peking Man homo erectus subspecies). The fossils — large fragments of one male and one female skull and a molar tooth — were discovered in 1993 in Hulu Cave in the Tangshan hills in Jiangning District, Nanjing in limestone sediments at a depth of 60 to 97 centimeters by Liu Luhong, a local worker. The skull fragments collected at Hulu Cave are currently displayed the Nanjing Homo erectus fossil museum. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1992, scientists with the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology (NIGP) identified Hulu Cave (roughly 26 kilometers, (16 miles from Nanjing) as a mammalian fossil bearing site, and organised excavations there. In March 1993, Liu Luhong discovered two partial skull fragments (Nanjing 1 and 2), the first retaining most of the face, and an upper molar (Nanjing 3). The mammal fossils found in Hulu were roughly the same as those found in Zhoukoudian cave.

Homo erectus occupation of Eastern Asia was an established idea well before the discovery of Homo erectus from Nanjing. However dating the Nanjing man fossils between 580,000 to 620,000 years ago pushed the estimate for Homo erectus colonisation of eastern Asia almost 270,000 years earlier. Morphological features of the Nanjing man fossils such as cranial capacity and the size of various cranial metrics differ significantly from other Chinese hominins. Despite this, morphometric and morphological features fall well within the range expected for Homo erectus. A high diversity in cranial morphological features in Chinese Homo erectus has been identified in a number of studies

Yuanmou Man

Homo erectus
Yuanmou Man (Homo erectus yuanmouensis) is a subspecies of Homo erectus which inhabited the Yuanmou Basin in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, roughly 1.7 million years ago. It is the first firm fossil evidence of humans in China, though they probably reached the region by at least 2 million years ago. Yuanmou Man is known only from two upper first incisors presumed to have belonged to a male, and a partial tibia presumed to have belonged to a female. The female may have stood about 123.6–130.4 centimeters (4 feet 1 inch – 4 feet 3 inches) while alive. These remains are anatomically quite similar to those contemporary early Homo in Africa, namely Homo habilis and Homo ergaster. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yuanmou Man inhabited a mixed environment featuring grassland, bushland, marshland, and forest dominated by pine and alder. They lived alongside chalicotheres, deer, the elephant Stegodon, rhinos, cattle, pigs, and the giant short-faced hyaena. The site currently sits at an elevation of 1,050–1,150 meters (3,440–3,770 feet). They manufactured simple cores, flakes, choppers, pointed tools, and scrapers which paralleled the technology of their African contemporaries.

Yuanmou Man was discovered on May 1, 1965 by geologist Qian Fang. He recovered two archaic human upper first incisors (catalogue number V1519) from fossiliferous deposits of the Yuanmou Basin near Shangnabang village, Yuanmou County, Yunnan Province. When they were formally described in 1973, they were determined to have belonged to a young male.

Hexian Homo Erectus

Hominin fossils found in Hexian (He County) in eastern Anhui Province includes a vault, cranial fragments, mandibular, and dental elements catalogued as PA830-PA835 and PA840-PA845. The site containing hominin material was excavated in 1980 and May through June 1981 by a Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in layer 4 of Longtan Cave. The fossils were dated to around 400,000 years ago but Chinese scientists have said better dating is necessary. [Source: Wikipedia]

The homo erectus found in Hexian was labeled Homo erectus hexianensis, but more detailed analysis suggested that it is not different enough to justify classifying it as a subspecies. The skull (PA830) was discovered in several fragments lacking most of the basicranium. In 1982, the endocast was reconstructed and the cranial capacity was measured to be 1025 cubic centimeters. The exterior of specimen is very well preserved. The frontal and temporal lobes are almost complete, while the parietal and occipital lobes are complete. The thickness, profile, brow, and distinct nuchal-occipital boundary are similar to those of other Chinese Homo erectus. However, a lack of postorbital constriction, increased width, a curved sagittal profile, a long parietal, and a high temporal are unlike them

The dental-mandibular remains were discovered in 1980 alongside the vault in excavation pit 3C. The mandible is thought to belong to a young adult individual, but sex estimation is not possible. The mandibular body was robust, and a well-differentiated mylohyoid line and a posteriorly-positioned lateral prominence are derived traits. Overall, the mandible has no Neanderthal traits, but quite similar to Homo antecessor. The teeth are characteristic of Homo erectus.

Liu et al. (2017) suggest that the Hexian hominins either belong to the same robust-jawed paleodeme as the Penghu hominin, or a robust morphology of mainland Homo erectus. Overall, the morphology displays primitive traits that is roughly contemporaneous with the hominins at Zhoukoudian.Wu et al. (2006) suggest that the differences are on account of local variation rather than subspecies-level differences.

According to the 2006 paper by Wu et al. in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on the Hexian Homo erectus: An endocranial volume of 1,025 cubic centimeters was estimated. The geological age is about 412,000, or roughly contemporaneous with the Zhoukoudian (ZKD) specimens. There are some differences between Hexian and the modern Chinese male endocasts in our sample, including low position of the greatest breadth, low maximum height, a well-marked and prominent frontal keel, the flat surface of the frontal lobes, prominent sagittal keel along the center frontal and parietal lobes, depressed Sylvian areas and parietal lobes superiorly, strong posterior projection of the occipital lobes, anterior position of the cerebellar lobes relative to the occipital lobes, and the relative simplicity of the meningeal vessels.

Compared with the ZKD, Indonesian, and African Homo erectus specimens, Hexian has more morphological features in common with ZKD. Principal component analyses indicate that Hexian is closest to the ZKD Homo erectus compared with the modern Chinese and other Homo erectus, but its great breadth distinguishes it. Metric analyses show that the brain height, frontal breadth, cerebral height, frontal height, and parietal chord from Homo erectus to modern humans increased, while the length, breadth, frontal chord, and occipital breadth did not change substantially. [Source: “Endocranial cast of Hexian Homo erectus from South China” by Xiujie Wu, Lynne A Schepartz, Dean Falk, Wu Liu, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, August 13, 2006]

Yunxian Homo Erectus Skulls

Skulls found at the Xuetang Liangzi site in Yunxian, China in Hubei Province have browridges like Homo erectus specimens found in Java and facial features that are more similar to younger skulls found in Europe. "This mix of characteristics tells us that there was more diversity within Homo erectus than we had thought," one scientist told National Geographic. Other scientist believe that skull is not from Homo erectus at all but from a species called Homo heidelbergensis that may have given birth to modern humans and Neanderthals.

Homo erectus skull

In September 2022, Chinese archaeologists announced that they had discovered an almost complete human skull around 1 million years old from at the Yunxing site — the third skull found there. Bryan Ke wrote in Nextshark: The skull, excavated by a team of archaeologists from the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, is the most complete human skull that has been unearthed from that period in mainland Eurasia, according to South China Morning Post, citing a report from Hubei Daily. “The No 3 skull is similar to the first two in terms of burial environment, faunal remains and technical characteristics of stone products, so the three skulls should belong to the same age,” Lu Chengqiu, head of the excavation team and a researcher with the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, told Hubei Daily. [Source: Bryan Ke, Nextshark, September 30, 2022]

Speaking to state-run network CCTV, Gao Xing, a team leader at the archaeological site, noted that archaeologists have excavated very few human fossils so far that date back over a million years. As in China and East Asia, the only ones over 1 million years old are Yuanmou Man, which dates back to 1.7 million years ago, and Lantian Man, which is around 1.6 million to 1.2 million years old,” Gao said.

The third skull was identified as belonging to homo erectus. Archaeologists found it in May 2022 about 35 meters (115 feet) from where the first two were discovered, according to the National Cultural Heritage Administration and didn’t fonish excavating it until eight months later. The discovery fills in an existing gap in evolutionary understanding, Gao Xing, head of the archaeological team at the site and a researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, told Xinhua News. [Source: Moira Ritter, Miami Herald, January 4, 2023]

The skull unearthed in 2022 was named by archaeologists as “No. 3 Skull of Yunxian Man.” The first two skulls were discovered in 1989 and 1990, with scientists estimating them to be between 800,000 and 1.1 million years old. Archaeologists have also found animal fossils, such as those of large herbivores and some carnivores, as well as stone tools at the dig site. They believe that these tools were used for most likely used for hunting and cutting animals. “The evidence suggests that Yunxian Man consumed many large herbivores,” Gao said.

Nihewan and Yuanmou Homo erectus Sites

Xiaochangliang — in the Nihewan Basin in Yangyuan County, Hebei, China — is the site of some of the oldest paleolithic remains related to hominins in East Asia. It is famous for the variety stone tools discovered there — which includes side and end scrapers, notches, burins and disc cores — and the relative accuracy of the dating of the tools. It is generally more difficult to date northeast Asian sites than African sites because the Asian ones usually lack volcanic materials that can be dated isotropically. The tools at Nihewan have been dated magnetostratigraphically — a method that utilizes dated reversals in the Earth's magnetic field — to 1.36 million years old. [Source: Wikipedia]

The site was first discovered by the US geologist George Barbour in 1923. In 1935 French archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin found a flint tool determined to be over a million years — the oldest artefact then known. Peking Man was found hundred kilometers to the south. From 1972 to 1978 more than 2000 pieces of stone tools and some bone tools were discovered, that dated paleolithic times. In 1982, a large hominin settlement was discovered at Donggutuo Village.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Nihewan Site is a unique testimony for the origin and evolution of civilization of human from the Palaeolithic Age to the early Neolithic Age. In Nihewan Basin, more than 80 sites of early human cultural relics have been found, and tens of thousands pieces of ancient human fossils, animal fossils and various stones have been unearthed, they almost record the whole process of evolution from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age, and advance the origin of Asian culture to 2 million years ago, relics of ancient human activities 2 million years ago have been found here other than in East Africa, which puts forward a significant challenge to "the only African human origin theory". At the same time, the scenes of ancient human eating something, which are extremely rare in the world's Paleolithic archaeological excavations, which happened 2 million years ago and which are recuperable, have been found. It can be said that this group of sites has directly changed the world history about human origins and development of human civilization and becomes a shrine for human seeking their roots. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

Since 2001, the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program has collaborated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study evidence of hominins in East Asia. According to the Smithsonian: “ This work has re-calculated the age of excavated discoveries by earlier teams, particularly in the extraordinary fossil beds of the Nihewan basin of northern China (Hebei Province) and the Yuanmou site in southern China (Yunnan Province). “In both regions, our team has re-examined the early hominin evidence and has undertaken geological reanalysis of the excavation sites. The geological work entails micro-sampling of the sediments to determine the finest scale changes in the magnetic properties of the sediments, which can be tied to the sequence of well-dated shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. The last of the major shifts occurred around 790,000 to 780,000 years ago (known as the Brunhes-Matuyama boundary), and the detailed sampling by the Chinese team has even captured minor shifts in the magnetic field. [Source: Human Origins Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, May 4, 2016 /]

“The Nihewan research includes new excavations, which have led so far to the recovery of the oldest known stone tools in northern China, in a series of layers dating from approximately 1.66 to 1.32 million years old. The Yuanmou stone tools and fossil incisor teeth are from a layer dated around 1.7 million years ago. These ages are based on the calculation of rates of sediment deposition between the known magnetic transitions in the Nihewan and Yuanmou strata. Ages can be determined because calculations of deposition rate in different parts of the sequence are all highly consistent; this implies that the age of the fossils and artifacts within the sediments can be reliably estimated.” /

Image Sources: Wikipedia; Wikimedia Commons, All Posters com

Text Sources: Wikipedia, BBC, Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org, The Guardian; Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated April 2024

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