Once hominids set out from Africa almost two million years ago, they first moved into Asia. One East Asian species, Homo erectus, seems to have enjoyed an extraordinarily long existence, surviving for well over 1.5 million years. This species also had a large range, extending from northern China through Indonesia. Much of our knowledge of Homo erectus in China comes from fragmentary remains found at Zhoukoudian, not far from the city of Beijing. Known as the Peking Man fossils, these bones offer a record of up to 40 members of a species that lived in China for at least several hundred thousand years.
Before scientific excavations began in the 1920s, people dug up fossilized bones from ancient cave deposits near the village of Zhoukoudian in eastern China--and thought they had discovered dragon bones. Later, researchers digging there found fossil remains of an ancient hominid they named "Peking Man."
The Case of the Missing Fossils
By the 1930s, researchers had discovered a rich collection of Homo erectus fossils at the Zhoukoudian cave in China. Housed at a research institution in nearby Peking, the fossils were studied in great detail before World War II. But by December 1941, conditions in Peking were deteriorating as the city prepared for a Japanese invasion.
To protect the fossils, technicians packed them for shipment to a safe location in the United States. The shipment never arrived. To this day, no one knows what happened to the original Peking Man fossils. Fortunately, the American Museum of Natural History holds an almost complete set of casts made from the originals before the war.
The Peking Man research team included Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Franz Weidenreich, Yang Zhongjian, Pei Wenzhong and Bian Meinian.
Featured Fossil: Peking Man skull
During excavations near Peking (now Beijing), China, between 1929 and 1937, researchers discovered several partial skulls of the species Homo erectus. These hominids, who lived around 400,000 years ago, came to be known as Peking Man. This skull was pieced together from fragments of various male specimens.
The first complete skullcap to be discovered at the Peking Man site was unearthed by a Chinese team digging in a candlelit pit in 1929. The long, sloping forehead and thick browridge in front and the protruding occipital torus in back are features typical of Homo erectus.
Uncovering Peking Man
Researchers excavated a layer of Dragon Bone Hill, near Zhoukoudian, China, in 1937. The first Peking Man fossils--two Homo erectus teeth--were discovered at this site in the early 1920s.
Hyenas Vs. Hominids
As the sun set over hilly terrain in eastern Asia some 500,000 years ago, a giant hyena approached a lone male of the species Homo erectus--a possible meal for cubs back at the den. By the time of this scene our early hominid relatives were fairly successful, having spread into parts of Asia and even Europe. But even though hominids like Homo erectus had become skilled hunters, some large animals may still have considered them prey.
Now extinct, the lion-sized hyenas that lived during this time were mostly scavengers, but because they were so large, they could easily hunt and kill. The Homo erectus remains known as Peking Man were found in what may have been an ancient hyena den.
Focus On: Homo erectus
When: 1.8 million to 40,000 years ago
Where: East and Southeast Asia
Brain Size: around 850-1,250 cubic centimeters, compared to the average of 1,400 for modern humans
Diet: probably plants with some meat
Average Adult Height:
females: 1.5 meters (4 feet, 11 inches)
males: 1.7 meters (5 feet, 7 inches)
Average Adult Weight:
females: 52 kg (115 pounds)
males: 58 kg (128 pounds)
Ancient Hyena Dens
Hyenas typically bring parts of their prey back to their dens, where they eat many of the bones along with the flesh. This behavior has made prehistoric hyena dens an important source of hominid remains. Fossilized fragments of up to 40 members of the species Homo erectus have been found in what appears to have been an ancient hyena den in eastern China.
DNA Confirms "Out of Africa"
Scientists once held two competing views about the relationship between modern humans and Homo erectus. Some maintained our species, Homo sapiens, evolved from populations of Homo erectus in many regions of the world between one and two million years ago. Others argued we evolved from an African ancestor less than 200,000 years ago, then expanded out of Africa, replacing Homo erectus and other species.
Recently, studies of DNA from living humans have helped resolve this debate. Researchers estimate that the common ancestral population of all humans alive today lived roughly 150,000 years ago, a date that favors the "out of Africa" model.