Paleoanthropology, Asia

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Paleoanthropology (English: Palaeoanthropology; from Greek: παλαιός (palaeos) "old, ancient"), anthrōpos (ἄνθρωπος), "man", understood to mean humanity, and -logia (-λογία), "discourse" or "study"), which combines the disciplines of paleontology and physical anthropology, is the study of ancient humans as found in fossil hominid evidence such as petrifacted bones and footprints.


Prior to today's general acceptance of Africa as the root of genus Homo, 19th century naturalists sought the origin of man in Asia. So-called "dragon bones" (fossil bones and teeth) from Chinese apothecary shops were known, but it was not until the early 20th century that German paleontologist, Max Schlosser, first described a single human tooth from Beijing. Although Schlosser (1903) was very cautious, identifying the tooth only as “?Anthropoide g. et sp. indet?,” he was hopeful that future work would discover a new anthropoid in China.

Eleven years later, the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson was sent to China as a mining advisor and soon developed an interest in “dragon bones”. It was he who, in 1918, discovered the sites around Zhoukoudian, a village about 50 kilometers southwest of Beijing. However, because of the sparse nature of the initial finds, the site was abandoned.

Work did not resume until 1921, when the Austrian paleontologist, Otto Zdansky, fresh with his doctoral degree from Vienna, came to Beijing to work for Andersson. Zdansky conducted short-term excavations at Locality 1 in 1921 and 1923, and recovered only two teeth of significance (one premolar and one molar) that he subsequently described, cautiously, as “?Homo sp.” (Zdansky, 1927). With that done, Zdansky returned to Austria and suspended all fieldwork.

News of the fossil hominin teeth delighted the scientific community in Beijing, and plans for developing a larger, more systematic project at Zhoukoudian were soon formulated. At the epicenter of excitement was Davidson Black, a Canadian-born anatomist working at Peking Union Medical College. Black shared Andersson’s interest, as well as his view that central Asia was a promising home for early humankind. In late 1926, Black submitted a proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation seeking financial support for systematic excavation at Zhoukoudian and the establishment of an institute for the study of human biology in China.

The Zhoukoudian Project came into existence in the spring of 1927, and two years later, the Cenozoic Research Laboratory of the Geological Survey of China was formally established. Being the first institution of its kind, the Cenozoic Laboratory opened up new avenues for the study of paleogeology and paleontology in China. The Laboratory was the precursor of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Science, which took its modern form after 1949.

The first of the major project finds are attributed to the young Swedish paleontologist, Anders Birger Bohlin, then serving as the field advisor at Zhoukoudian. He recovered a left lower molar that Black (1927) identified as unmistakably human (it compared favorably to the previous find made by Zdansky), and subsequently coined it Sinanthropus pekinensis. The news was at first met with skepticism, and many scholars had reservations that a single tooth was sufficient to justify the naming of a new type of early hominin. Yet within a little more than two years, in the winter of 1929, Pei Wenzhong, then the field director at Zhoukoudian, unearthed the first complete calvaria of Peking Man. Twenty-seven years after Schlosser’s initial description, the antiquity of early humans in East Asia was no longer a speculation, but a reality.

Excavations continued at the site and remained fruitful until the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The decade-long research yielded a wealth of faunal and lithic materials, as well as hominin fossils. These included 5 more complete calvaria, 9 large cranial fragments, 6 facial fragments, 14 partial mandibles, 147 isolated teeth, and 11 postcranial elements—estimated to represent as least 40 individuals. Evidence of fire, marked by ash lenses and burned bones and stones, were apparently also present, although recent studies have challenged this view. Franz Weidenreich came to Beijing soon after Black’s untimely death in 1934, and took charge of the study of the hominin specimens.

Following the loss of the Peking Man materials in late 1941, scientific endeavors at Zhoukoudian slowed, primarily because of lack of funding. Frantic search for the missing fossils took place, and continued well into the 1950s. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, excavations resumed at Zhoukoudian. But with political instability and social unrest brewing in China, beginning in 1966, and major discoveries at Olduvai Gorge and East Turkana (Koobi Fora), the paleoanthropological spotlight shifted westward to East Africa. Although China re-opened its doors to the West in the late 1970s, national policy calling for self-reliance, coupled with a widened language barrier, thwarted all the possibilities of renewed scientific relationships. Indeed, Harvard anthropologist K. C. Chang noted, “international collaboration (in developing nations very often a disguise for Western domination) became a thing of the past” (1977: 139).

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External Links

  • WikipediaPaleoanthropology in the 1990sFossil HominidsAspects of PaleoanthropologyBecoming Human: Paleoanthropology, Evolution and Human OriginsDepartment of Human Evolution ~ Max Planck Institute, Leipzig

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