Who – or What – is the Peking Man? – Part 2/3 (ca. 400,000 – 250,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on Friday, January 11, 2008

A view into one of the caves where fossils belonging to Peking Man were found over the course of several decades.

Twelve years passed without excavations at Zhoukoudian. Finally, in 1949, the political situation was stable enough for the work to continue, and work seasons were held in 1951, 1958-60, and again from 1978-80. A surprising number of additional fossils were found during these excavations:

1959: Almost full mandible belonging to an older female.

1966: Frontal and occipital skull fossils, allowing for a complete skullcap reconstruction. The skull fossils found here belonged to the same individual whose bones had been excavated in 1934-36.

Between the years of 1921 and 1966, the Peking Man fossils that were excavated brought the findings to a total of 6 almost full crania/skullcaps; 19 large skull fragments; many small skull fragments; 15 partial or incomplete mandibles; 157 isolated teeth; 3 humerous bone pieces; 1 clavicular; 1 lunate; and 1 tibia.

A look at some of the skull fragments found in 1966, belonging to Peking Man. These pieces are called a “frontal” and an “occipital”.Studies on these fossil fragments then made several conclusions about this ancient man. Peking Man walked upright, like modern humans, and had a similar skeletal morphology – males were between five and six feet tall (about 5’11”), with the women just under five feet (about 4’73”). However, despite all the study done on the physical aspects of the people and examinations of cranial capacity… there is little that can be actually learned about Peking Man from fragments of bone. Instead, it’s the material remains that really makes a difference.

Fortunately, plenty of mammal fossils, ash piles, and other artifacts were found at the dig locations! Around 118 animal fossils were recovered, and reportedly about 100,000 other items were collected from the site – nothing was left behind, just in case it might provide some clue about Peking Man’s background.

The recovered stone tools from Zhoukoudian were made with various types of rock, which seems to suggest an aesthetic appreciation for different textures and densities – everything from vein quartz, to flint, to sandstone, to quartz crystals were used, alone with boulders and cobble to assist in tool creation. The tools were also made using different methods as time progressed!

Peking Man’s tool-making proficiency is often divided into three stages: in the early period, the artifacts were mostly middle to large, and typically made of quartz and sandstone. The flaking technique here is known as ‘block on block’ or ‘anvil technique’ – the large core rock is actually struck against a large, stationary rock (an “anvil”) to remove flakes of stone In the middle stage of tool industry, this manufacturing style was abandoned and a ‘bipolar technique’ was used, a modification of the first method. In this case, the core is placed on the anvil as support, and then struck with another object to function as a ‘hammer’, compressing the stone at both ends and causing the rock to shatter into hopefully usable pieces.

A stone core that would have probably been knapped using one of the early techniques, the anvil technique or direct percussion.Unfortunately, both methods give very little control over the stone and the pieces that fly off it, creating rather dangerous and extremely sharp rock projectiles! Naturally, Peking Man wanted to find something better, and so the late stage of tool making was far more advanced. Tools became much smaller, were higher quality, and semi-translucent quartz was used for most of the objects. The technique used was called ‘direct percussion’: the core is held in one hand, and stuck with a hard hammer stone to remove the flakes, giving the flintknapper very close control of the object and the size of flakes that are removed.

But even more interesting? Peking Man had fire…

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Part 3 of course!


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One comment so far

julian at March 5, 2008

What happens with Part 3?!

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