Peking Man: The Enigma at Dragon-Bone Hill

At the onset of the 20th century, a diverse team of paleontologists embarked on a mission to excavate the Cave of Zhoukoudian, nestled in the limestone formation known as Dragon-Bone Hill near Beijing. Initially sought by dragon bone collectors for mythical remnants, the cave revealed not legendary creatures, but the ancient mystery that would birth China’s modern-day nationalistic mythology—Peking Man.

Excavating the Peking Man Fossils: Decoding the Clues of Dragon-Bone Hill

The cave located above ground at Zhoukoudian in China, where traces of Peking man were discovered. ( Source )

Dragon bones were absent, replaced by the fossils of long-extinct mammals. In 1921, Swedish geologist J. G. Anderson, American paleontologist W. W. Granger, and Austrian archaeologist O. Zdansky initiated excavations. Quartz fragments emerged, hinting at past human habitation. Subsequent discoveries, including human-like teeth and a well-preserved lower molar, led to the identification of Sinanthropus pekinensis (Peking man) by 1927.

Pioneering Discoveries Under Pei Wenzhong: Resilience Amidst Turmoil

Under Pei Wenzhong’s guidance from 1928 to 1935, amid the Japanese invasion of northern China, groundbreaking finds continued. The highlight was the 1929 unearthing of the first complete Peking man cranium. Post-1935, excavations resumed in 1949 with the People’s Republic of China’s establishment, unearthing over 1950 fossils, stone tools, artifacts, plant remains, and diverse mammal bones. This archaeological treasure showcased an uninterrupted 200,000-year human occupation, shaping the narrative of Peking man.

Delving into the Multifaceted Peking Man Fossils: A Paleontological Chronicle

The array of fossils cataloged at the Cave of Zhoukoudian was extensive. Six complete skulls, skull fragments, mandibles, teeth, humerus and femur fragments, and diverse bones provided a detailed glimpse into Peking man’s anatomy. The peculiarities of the skull, with its thickness, flatness, and prominent brows, intrigued scholars. Its larger brain case, compared to other early humans, fueled speculation about the missing link in human evolution.

Unveiling Primitive Tools: A 200,000-Year Technological Odyssey

Excavations revealed primitive tools, showcasing a 200,000-year technological evolution. Peking man displayed advanced tool-making skills, utilizing materials like vein quartz and rock crystals. Techniques evolved through anvil percussion, bipolar percussion, and direct percussion, each marking a distinct period. The tools, varying in size and material, underscored Peking man’s adaptability and mastery of technology over millennia.

Peking Man’s Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle: A Tale of Survival and Cooperation

A mural showcasing a hunting expedition of Peking man at the Zhoukoudian Museum. ( Source )

Abundant fossils of deer, Chinese hackberry seeds, and various nuts depicted Peking man as adept hunters and gatherers. The emphasis on group living for successful hunting and communal sharing of kills revealed signs of primitive communism. Peking man’s ability to thrive in challenging environments showcased their adaptability and social cooperation, weaving a narrative of survival intertwined with the natural world.

Peking Man in Chinese Evolutionary Discourse: Nationalism and Controversy

The People’s Republic of China has woven Peking man into its national evolutionary theory, challenging the widely accepted Out of Africa theory. Stemming from a 1930s theory by Franz Weidenreich, Peking man became the supposed progenitor of the Chinese race. Claims of a separate Chinese evolutionary path, supported by subsequent finds like Wushan Man and Eosimias sinesi, reinforced the narrative. Skull 101, with its “mongoloid” features, became a pivotal symbol.

Nationalism and Archaeology: From Textbooks to Cultural Celebrations

A sculpture representing Peking man positioned at the entrance of the Zhoukoudian site. ( Source )

The surge in patriotism during the 1990s propelled Peking man into the national spotlight, featuring prominently in Chinese textbooks and archaeological surveys. Peking man’s use of fire, celebrated in events like the Chinese Centennial Monument inauguration, became a unifying cultural symbol. However, the intertwining of archaeology with nationalism raised concerns about the accuracy and objectivity of China’s paleontological narrative.

The Pitfalls of Jingoistic Paleontology: Questioning Narratives and Confronting Consequences

An informational display at the Peking Man Museum illustrating the Chinese archaeological and nationalistic storyline. ( Source )

China’s nationalistic paleontological narrative has faced criticism for stretching evidence in the service of nationalism. Comparisons with Africa, a more genetically diverse region, highlight potential biases. Exaggerations, like the acclaim of Rampithecus as a Chinese ape ancestor, echo a pattern. Skepticism, backed by MtDNA studies, challenges the uniqueness of Chinese evolution, emphasizing a shared African ancestry around 60,000 years ago.

Beyond Nationalism: Global Patterns of Jingoistic Paleontology

While China’s approach to paleontology echoes historical instances of nationalistic emphasis in Japan, Israel, and England, its consequences take a darker turn. Defiance of sanctioned views, notably the Out of Africa hypothesis, subjects academics to online abuse and societal exclusion. Disturbing instances, such as racially charged events in 2018 and 2020, reveal the potential dangers of using ancient narratives for present-day agendas.


Peking man stands as a complex symbol, intertwining ancient history with contemporary nationalism. Its legacy, celebrated in cultural events and educational materials, carries a weight that extends beyond archaeology. The cautionary tale lies in recognizing the potential dangers of aligning scientific narratives with nationalist fervor, urging a nuanced and objective approach to understanding our shared human history.

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