- The People's Peking Man
The development of human evolutionary studies in many areas of the world was often influenced by social and political changes within each individual country. This is especially pertinent in a country like China, where the influence of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel's communist manifestos played an especially important role. In particular, Engel's underlying theme that labor created humanity appears to have been heavily influential in China. Interestingly, the writings of Marx and Engels prompted the Chinese to advocate more public dissemination of scientific findings and a greater role of the laypeople to contribute to the development of scientific research within China. Sigrid Schmalzer's The People's Peking Man examines this developmental history in the field of Chinese paleoanthropology (human evolutionary research) in some detail. Schmalzer uses the findings from the famous Zhoukoudian site as the foundation for her study. Because of the many important hominin finds that could be used for addressing a wide variety of human evolutionary debates, since 1987 Zhoukoudian has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This recognition attests to the importance of the findings from Zhoukoudian to the broader international community.
Zhoukoudian1 (dragon bone hill) is a limestone hill located approximately 50 kilometers southwest of the capital city Beijing. Zhoukoudian is filled with Pleistocene2 cave and fissure deposits. The contents of the sediments of the various caves explains the international notoriety of the site. In particular, two cave localities have received the most attention. Zhoukoudian Locality 1 came to the attention of the international scientific community in the late 1920s following the discovery of hominin fossils that came to be known as Homo erectus.3 Soon after, excavations at the Zhoukoudian Upper Cave site, which received its name because it is directly situated above Locality 1, revealed the presence of multiple modern H. sapiens fossils that were interred.4 In the popular press, Zhoukoudian Locality 1 came to be known as the "Cave Home of Peking Man,"5 thus the justification for the title of Schmalzer's treatise.
Schmalzer reviews the history of paleoanthropological research in China using the discovery and influence of the Homo erectus fossils excavated from Zhoukoudian Locality 1 as the foundation. She goes into detail about the roles played by the major scientists (both western and Chinese) from the 1920s to the present day. In Schmalzer's view, the sociopolitical environment of twentieth-century China heavily influenced the development of human evolutionary research. Much of the information about the history of Chinese paleoanthropology [End Page 250] presented by Schmalzer—who spent a year as a visiting scholar at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP)—is both credible and factual. Her analysis is based on many direct correspondences and interviews with top Chinese paleoanthropologists. What I found particularly interesting is that Schmalzer interacted with and interviewed many of the leading figures in Chinese paleoanthropology today, many of whom are my own close colleagues (e.g., Wu Xinzhi, Liu Wu, Gao Xing, Chen Chun).
Schmalzer's study produced many interesting points. For example, in the fourteen history textbooks published between 1927 (the year the first hominin fossils were discovered at Zhoukoudian) and 1949 (the year Mao Zedong came to power), Schmalzer notes, only two discussed the Peking Man fossils. This lack of interest may have been due to the large amount of political unrest in China between the 1920s and the 1940s. However, it was not until after Mao came to power that Peking Man became a figure of national importance. As Schmalzer justifiably observes, after Mao came to power, the Chinese leaders used Peking Man to argue that Chinese culture could be pushed back to the Middle Pleistocene. Thus, the finds from Zhoukoudian, particularly the H. erectus fossils, became a matter of national pride and importance.
One of the highlights of the treatise is Schmalzer's emphasis on the contributions to the field by local people interested in contributing to the evolutionary...