Posted by: Loren Coleman on March 12th, 2009
The media has turned to a Gigantopithecus and Homo erectus expert (who has said some things about Yeti) for his views on the breaking “Peking Man” news.
Today, various news sites will overwhelm you with the information that the famed “Peking Man” fossils (really some of which are of females) are maybe 200,000 years older than previously thought, according to a new dating study.
The revised date could change, we are being told, the timeline and number of migrations of the Homo erectus species out of Africa and into Asia. It also suggests that Peking Man endured glacial climates.
The first fossils of the species were found on Java, Indonesia, in 1892 by Eugène Dubois, and thus called “Java Man” (originally Pithecanthropus erectus).
Nearly 30 years later, in 1923-27, more Homo erectus fossils were found thousands of miles away during excavations of the Zhoukoudian (Chou K’ou-tien) cave system just outside of Beijing, China, which was called Peking back then, and thus they are called the “Peking Man” fossils. They were initially classified as Sinanthropus pekinensis and Pithecanthropus pekinensis.
Today, Pithecanthropus erectus, Pithecanthropus pekinensis, and Sinanthropus pekinensis are considered examples of Homo erectus.
The original reconstruction of Peking Man was prepared by Dr. F. Weidenreich and Mrs. Lucille Swan in 1937 from the fossil remains of several different individuals found in the caves at Zhoukoudian, China. The Bone Clones replica of the Peking Man is easily obtainable today.
But where are the originals?
One of the most enduring mysteries of paleoanthropology is “What happened to the Peking Man?”
Fossils of Peking Man were placed in the safe at the Cenozoic Research Laboratory of the Peking Union Medical College. Eventually, in November 1941, secretary Hu Chengzi packed up the fossils so they could be sent to USA for safekeeping until the end of the war. They vanished en route to the port city of Qinghuangdao. They were probably in possession of a group of US marines whom the Japanese captured when the war began between Japan and the USA.
Various parties have tried to locate the fossils, but so far they have been without result. In 1972, a US financier Christopher Janus promised a $5,000 (USD) reward for the missing skulls; one woman contacted him, asking for $500,000 (USD) but she later vanished. In July 2005, the Chinese government founded a committee to find the bones to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. They remain missing.
There are various theories of what might have happened, including a theory that the bones sank with the Japanese ship Awa Maru in 1945.
Today’s widely publicized new study, funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Wenner-Gren Foundation, is published in the March 12 issue of the journal Nature. Guanjun Shen at Nanjing Normal University, China, is the lead author of the study.
But the guy the media interviewed for most of their stories today is paleoanthropologist Russell L. Ciochon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who was not involved in the new study.
Russell L. Ciochon is the anthropologist who is responsible for most of the contemporary writings on Gigantopithecus, which some think is the best candidate for Bigfoot/Sasquatch, or for others, the Yeti.
This “Peking Man” study is of interest to scientists because the populations of the species that lived in Africa are “implicated in the ancestry of modern humans,” said Ciochon.
These glacial cycles didn’t involve mounds of snow and ice as one might think, rather it was “just a colder, drier period,” Ciochon told LiveScience.
Homo erectus is “a species that had legs,” Ciochon said, referring to the distances traveled. “Aside from Homo sapiens, it’s the most widespread hominin species.”
Ciochon said that the new date for the Zhoukoudian fossils lends credence to the idea that there could have been more than one migration route.
“Maybe there could have been two dispersals,” he said. One route could have extended along the coast of Asia to Java, and another through the interior of Eurasia to Zhoukoudian and the surrounding areas.
Was the climate more Arctic-like than previously thought, because of these new earlier dates? Could have Peking Man been more hair-covered that originally conceived? What more intensive interactions did Homo erectus have with Gigantopitchecus, due to this new revised timeline? Is the fossil form Homo erectus the ancestor of the island-sized little Homo floresiensis?
Like everything else with the Peking Man, we are left with more questions than answers, once again.