Friday, May 2, 2014

770,000 year old Peking Man’s controlled use of fire confirmed

For decades, the so-called Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis) from Zhoukoudian (south west of modern Beijing) has been considered to be a hominin that engaged in the controlled production and management of fire. This hypothesis, however likely, was never based on solid proof, until recently that is, when Chinese scientists announced that they had analysed ash from the archaeological site.

Nearly 100 years of discovery

Excavations at a site known locally as “Dragon Bone Hill” unearthed two hominin molars in the 1920s. Afterwards Canadian anatomist Davidson Black of the Peking Union Medical College, secured funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to do more excavations at Zhoukoudian. In the Autumn of 1927 a single tooth was unearthed by Swedish palaeontologist Anders Birger Bohlin.

Black published his analysis in the journal Nature, identifying the find as belonging to a new species and genus which he named Sinanthropus pekinensis, but many fellow scientists were sceptical about such an identification on the basis of a single tooth. The Rockefeller Foundation demanded more specimens before it would grant additional money.

A lower jaw, several teeth, along with some skull fragments were unearthed in 1928. Black presented these finds to the Foundation and was rewarded with an $80,000 grant.

Excavations continued at the site under the supervision of Chinese archaeologists Yang Zhongjian, Pei Wenzhong, and Jia Lanpo. This time they uncovered 200 fossils (including six nearly complete skullcaps) from more than 40 individual specimens. These excavations came to an end in 1937 with the Japanese invasion and resumed again after the war. The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987 and new excavations were started in June 2009.

Use of fire called into question

Recent age determinations for the Zhoukoudian sequence have shown that Homo erectus pekinensis seems to have first occupied Locality 1 some 770,000 years ago, when climatic conditions in North China were relatively cold. In order to survive the harsh weather Homo erectus pekinensis would have needed to be able to create and manage fire. By the 1930s the presence and control of fire had become a widely accepted concept for the site because several ash deposits had been found there. However, more recently this evidence had been called into question, as siliceous aggregate (an insoluble phase of burned ash) was not found to be present in the remains recovered.

New evidence

Study co-author, Dr. GAO Xing, an archaeologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, presented new evidence in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin 59(3) that can now confirm the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus pekinensis. Through analyses of four soil samples obtained in 2009 from Layers 4 and 6 at Zhoukoudian Locality 1., the scientists demonstrated that all four specimens contain siliceous aggregates as well as elemental carbon, and the potassium content of the insoluble residues of these specimens ranges between 1.21 % and 2.94 %. This analyses provides very strong evidence for the in situ use of fire by Homo erectus pekinensis.

Past Horizons. 2014. “770,000 year old Peking Man’s controlled use of fire confirmed”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 12, 2014. Available online:

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