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India and China
Team Dispatch

Dragon's Bones or Really Old Teeth? The Peking Man Site
June 28, 2000

So the team has arrived in China, and the excitement to see all that we can over the next few weeks is uncontrollable! In all the dispatches this week, we've hinted at the many sights that we will be visiting, attempting to give you a clear glimpse into what life is like in China today, as well as a look into China's diverse and rich history.

When we say "history," though, we bet you didn't know we'd be going back half a million years! Yup, here in the caves in "Dragon Bone Hill," near Choukoutien, fossils of early humans dating from 500,000 to 230,000 years ago were discovered. These early human fossils illustrate the process of evolution and have helped scientists to fill in the missing parts of the evolutionary "jigsaw puzzle."

So, who was Peking Man? And why is he so important? First of all, Peking Man is not just one guy. Rather, Peking Man is the name given to an extinct hominid of the species homo erectus. The Peking Man fossils were discovered in these caves about 30 miles southwest of Beijing. They were first excavated by a Canadian Professor named Davidson Black, who was working at the Peking Union Medical College. But Professor Black can't get all the credit for discovering these fossils. Back in 1903 a German professor was looking through a drawer full of teeth when…Wait! What? A drawer full of teeth?

Yes, an explanation is in order here. See, many Chinese rely on herbal remedies and the use of fossils for medicinal purposes. Back around the turn of the century, local people around Choukoutien found what they termed to be "dragon's bones" in the caves and clefts in the hills near the village. They claimed that these "dragon's bones" had medicinal purposes. In actuality, the "dragon's bones" were fossils, and led to some of the most important scientific discoveries in the areas of human evolution.

So, this German professor had heard about the tales of "dragon's bones" and set out to investigate. He was at a store that sold these traditional herbal remedies and discovered a drawer full of fossil teeth. He came across one tooth that looked rather human. He asked the owner of the shop where it came from, and learned of the caves around Choukoutien. In 1921, hoping to discover more, he explored these caves and discovered some quartz pieces that he thought may have been used by early humans as cutting tools. Unfortunately, the quartz pieces were all he found, and without any more fossils, he had difficulty arguing his theories of early human existence.

So here's where Professor Black comes in to the story. In 1927, he found a hominid molar at the site, which supported the earlier assumptions about early human existence in the area. Later excavations uncovered 14 skullcaps, several facial, jaw and limb bones, and the teeth of about 40 individuals. These Peking Man specimens were classified as a type of homo erectus that had inhabited the area between 500,000 and 230,000 years ago.


hominid: - The word "hominid" refers to members of the family of humans, Hominidae, which consists of all species on our side of the last common ancestor of humans and living apes. (Some scientists use a broader definition of Hominidae which includes the great apes.)
excavated: - uncovered by digging
quartz: - a type of mineral

One of the most important things about the Peking Man discoveries is that they demonstrate the technological sophistication of this early human species. In addition to the fossils, several tools were discovered around the site as well. Stone scrapers, choppers and hand axes discovered there give us the knowledge that Peking Man was pretty advanced. One thing that still has the scientists arguing is whether or not Peking Man used fire to cook. Early discoveries of ash and charred animal bones led scientists to believe that Peking Man had learned to use fire for lighting, cooking and heating. However, recent further excavations have given no evidence to further prove this theory, and it is now thought that the earlier ash and charred bones were probably a result of fires started by lightning, not humans.

The Peking Man Site is on UNESCO's World Heritage List as a site of particular historical importance in need of preservation. UNESCO calls the Peking Man Site "not only an exceptional reminder of the human societies of the Asian continent very long ago, but also [one which] illustrates the process of evolution."

To visit the UNESCO website,
click here.

Unfortunately, here at the Peking Man Site, you can't see many of the actual fossils that were discovered here. During World War II, the most important fossils were believed to be at risk of theft, so they were carefully packed up and put in crates to be shipped to the United States, where it was presumed that they'd be safer. However, the fossils never made it there. Somewhere in the transport, they were lost, never to be recovered. Luckily, a set of plaster casts had been made of the fossils before they were lost, and these are exhibited at the Peking Man site in Choukoutien, along with some of the newer excavations.



Jasmine - The World Trek Is Bringing It Home...Kunming, China Kicks Off The Grand Finale!
Monica's Farewell: Trekking Out of India
Abeja - Confucius Says: Welcome to China
Yang-Yang - The World Trek in China Begins!
Kavitha - Buddhism? Here? Visiting the Yuantong Temple
Team - Making a Difference - Do As I Say, Not As I Do, And No, You Can't Have Any of My Weapons: Getting MAD About Nuclear Proliferation

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