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Zhoukoudian (China)

Ancient Homo Erectus in China

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Western Wall at Zhoukoudian

Western Wall at Zhoukoudian

Ian Armstrong
Peking Man Skull Fragments, American Natural History Museum

Peking Man Skull Fragments, American Natural History Museum

Ryan Somma

Zhoukoudian (also spelled Choukoutien) is the name of a stratified cave site and associated fissures in Fangshan District, about 45 km southwest of Beijing, China where several very ancient archaeological occupations have been identified. The most famous of them is Locality 1 at Longgushan cave, which was excavated in the 1920s by Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson with several Chinese archaeologists, including the father of Chinese archaeology Pei Wenzhong. In 1929, Pei found the skullcap of what was then called Peking Man (now Beijing Man) the second Homo erectus skull ever found (the first was Java Man; Peking Man was the confirming evidence).

Occupations at Zhoukoudian

The site where Peking Man was discovered contains multiple strata, dated between 700,000 and 130,000 years ago. The top 13 layers recovered over 40 Homo erectus individuals; over 100,000 artifacts including stone tools, plant and animal remains; and large hearth areas. Dates for the Homo erectus layers have been somewhat problematic over the years. Other occupations at Zhoukoudian include the Upper Cave, an important site dated between 18,000 and 11,000 years ago.

Zhoukoudian has been the focus of the debate concerning the Multiregional Hypothesis versus Out of Africa Hypothesis for the origin of Homo sapiens, because of perceived "Asian-like" aspects of the Peking Man skull; not every scholar accepts the perception.

Redating of Zhoukoudian

In March 2009, the journal Nature reported new dates for Zhoukoudian Locality 1, where Peking Man and the other 39 hominid fossils were recovered. Using a fairly new radio-isotopic dating technique based on decay ratios of aluminum-26 and beryllium-10 in quartzite artifacts recovered within the sediment layers, researchers estimate the dates of Peking Man as between 680,000-780,000 years old. The research is backed up by the types of animal life suggested by the bones: the H. erectus living in Zhoukoudian would have had to have been cold-adapted, supporting the possible use of fire at the cave site.

Fire at Zhoukoudian?

The use of fire in Locality 1 has been suggested but not absolutely confirmed by the presence of bright red sediments (perhaps just coloration by the presence of hematite) and the fact that some of the animal bones found in association with quartzite artifacts had been burned. The latest dates and the climate of the cave during their occupation may be supporting evidence for pushing back the use of fire an additional 200,000 years.

Sources

Fagan, Brian. 1996. Zhoukoudian. In Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Brian Fagan, editor. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Goldberg, P., et al. 2001 Site formation processes at Zhoukoudian, China. Journal of Human Evolution 41(5):483-530.

Neves, Walter A. and Hector Pucciarelli 1998 The Zhoukoudian upper cave skull 101 as seen from the Americas. Journal of Human Evolution 34:219-222.

Norton, Christopher J. and Xing Gao 2008 Zhoukoudian Upper Cave Revisited. Current Anthropology 49(4):732-745.

Shen, Guanjun, Hai Cheng, and R. Lawrence Edwards. 2004. Mass spectrometric U-series dating of New Cave at Zhoukoudian, China. Journal of Archaeological Science 31:337-342.

Shen, Guanjun, Xing Gao, Bin Gao, and Darryl E. Granger 2009 Age of Zhoukoudian Homo erectus determined with 26Al/10Be burial dating. Nature 458:198-200.

Tattersall, Ian and G. J. Sawyer 1996 The skull of "Sinanthropus" from Zhoukoudian, China: A new reconstruction. Journal of Human Evolution 31:311-314.

Wolpoff, Milford H. 1995 Wright for the wrong reasons. Journal of Human Evolution 29:185-188.

Wright, R. V. S. 1995 The Zhoukoudian Upper Cave skull 101 and multiregionalism. Journal of Human Evolution 29:181-183.

Xiaoneng Yang. 2004. Beijing (Peking) Man and the Zhoukoudian site at Fangshan, Beijing City. Pp. 21-23, in Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. Yale University Press, New Haven.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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