Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Franz Weidenreich reconstructed the face of the oldest known hominid and provided the first glimpse of Peking man, he clarified the path of human evolution.

Summary of Event

As early as 1900, Western scientists knew that China was an ideal place to look for fossil humans. Western visitors had discovered isolated humanlike teeth in Chinese drugstores, where they were called “dragon’s teeth” and sold as medicine. In 1918, the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered a major deposit of Pleistocene fossils in a cave outside the village of Zhoukoudian, located near Beijing (then known in the West as Peking). These fossils appeared to be about 500,000 years old. Looking for fossil mammals and hoping for fossil humans, Andersson began excavating the site in 1921. Shortly thereafter, Davidson Black, a professor of anatomy at the Peking Medical Union, persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to establish the Cenozoic Research Laboratory in Beijing. It became the center for excavations at Zhoukoudian and for the analysis of material found at that site. [kw]Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man (Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938) [kw]Peking Man, Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of (Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938) [kw]Man, Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking (Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938) Peking man Anthropology;ancient man Fossils;Peking man [g]China;Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938: Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man[09580] [g]East Asia;Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938: Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man[09580] [c]Anthropology;Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938: Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man[09580] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Fall, 1937-Winter, 1938: Weidenreich Reconstructs the Face of Peking Man[09580] Weidenreich, Franz Black, Davidson Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre Pei Wenzhong Andersson, Johan Gunnar

Based on isolated teeth, Black formally identified Peking man in 1927, calling him Sinanthropus pekinensis. In 1929, the Chinese archaeologist Pei Wenzhong discovered the first nearly complete skullcap of a Sinanthropus pekinensis, providing the first real evidence that early man existed in China. This discovery seemed to confirm Black’s belief that humanity’s ancestor was to be found in the Far East. Furthermore, stone tools, burned animal bones, and animal bones with clear-cut marks were found in association with the skullcap, giving definite evidence of culture. When Black died of a heart attack in 1934, he was succeeded by Franz Weidenreich, who had been firmly established in Germany as an anatomist and physical anthropologist. Already renowned for his work in hematology and osteology, in 1928 he had written the definitive account of a Neanderthal-like skull found at Weimar-Ehringsdorf, Germany. In Beijing, he cooperated with the archaeologists who were actively involved in excavations such as Pei and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Weidenreich supervised the extraction of the bones from their rocky matrices, directed the scientific drawing of the fossils, and wrote reports of findings.

Although many human fossils had been found at Zhoukoudian by 1937, nearly all were damaged skullcaps. The skull below the level of the ears was frequently destroyed, as were most facial bones. Bones from the lower skeleton were rare, but those that had been found were broken in a way that implied extraction of marrow. It has generally been assumed that Peking man had been the agent of this destruction and that he had been removing and eating brains and bone marrow. With the advent of the study of taphonomy—the natural conditions affecting preservation of human activities—it has been recognized that fossils as old as Peking man are frequently crushed and that the thinnest part of the bone in Peking man’s skull was below the ears. Consequently, it is possible that the damage to these bones may have been caused by natural agencies. Nevertheless, it was impossible for modern scholars to reconstruct his face. They knew that he had a massive ridge of bone above his eyes, little or no forehead, his skull was long and low, and his brain was somewhat more than twice the size of a modern chimpanzee, but the scarcity of facial bones meant that they did not know what he looked like.

This knowledge was pieced together after the end of fall, 1937. This was to be the last season at Zhoukoudian before the Japanese invasion put an end to fieldwork. Three fairly well-preserved skulls, all adults, were found in the same location. None of these individuals had complete faces. Nevertheless, enough of the three faces had survived that it was possible to reconstruct the appearance of Peking man.

Franz Weidenreich.

(American Museum of Natural History)

Actually, it was a Peking woman who was reconstructed. One of the skulls, a female’s, included a large fragment of the upper jaw. This was the important piece needed to fill in the picture of the Sinanthropus face. Only the nasal bones, a portion of the front of the upper jaw, the cheekbones, and part of the area around the eyes needed to be adapted from other individuals. The lower jaw was adapted from the lower jaw of a female found in 1936. Weidenreich was satisfied that his reconstruction was correct, given that it was based on real bones and had no imaginary details. According to Weidenreich’s reconstruction, the face of Peking woman was heavy and large. Her eye sockets were larger than those of modern humans, and her eyes were set wide apart. Her nose was low and wide, but within the range of variation in modern humans. Her face was wide and jutted forward slightly. She had the usual Sinanthropus chin and forehead and the usual heavy brow ridge over her eyes and nose. Her head was small in comparison to modern humans but is larger than any ape’s. Her skull was widest above the ears and then sloped upward and inward, and she had a slight ridge running from front to rear along the top of her head. She had a bony ridge at the back of her head, set slightly above a very thick neck. Despite these characteristics, she undeniably represents an ancestor of modern human beings.

Weidenreich left China in 1941, barely escaping incarceration in a Japanese prison camp. He had attempted to send the Peking man fossils out of China with the help of the United States Army. The bones of forty individuals—men, women, and children—from an important stage of human evolution were packed in footlockers and sent to the coast with American soldiers to be delivered to the S. S. President Harrison at the port of Zhingwangdao. Unfortunately, they disappeared after they left Beijing. It is not known whether they were stolen, lost, or destroyed by Japanese soldiers. Weidenreich and others attempted to locate the fossils after World War II, but to no avail. Although a number of mysterious stories were told about their whereabouts, the Peking fossils were never found. The disaster of this loss has been partly compensated for by the excellent casts, photographs, and drawings made by laboratory technicians in China. That is all that is left of the major finds from Zhoukoudian.

In recent years, archaeologists in China have continued the search for Peking man. No further fossils of Peking man have been found at Zhoukoudian, but they have been found elsewhere in China. It is regrettable that the bones so carefully studied by Weidenreich and others are no longer available for further research. New and sophisticated methods of analysis could have been used to extract further secrets from them, and it is unlikely that such a large population of early man will ever be found again.


At the time that Weidenreich made his reconstruction, Peking man, together with his cousin, Java man, was the earliest accepted ancestor of modern people. Neanderthals and related types from Europe and the Middle East were far too recent and far too similar to modern humans to qualify as early ancestors. Although the Australopithecines had been discovered in South Africa as early as 1924, they were not accepted as being on the human line of evolution until the 1950’s. At the time of the great discoveries of Peking man, an acrimonious debate was percolating over whether the Australopithecines were large apes or early hominids. The discoveries in Zhoukoudian excited the world, because Peking man and his Javanese cousins stood alone as humankind’s undisputed ancestors. In a certain sense, they still stand alone. In later years, Peking man, Java man, and other related types later found in Africa and Europe were reclassified as Homo erectus, Homo erectus thought to have lived between one million years ago and about 150,000 years ago. They are the first members of the genus Homo and the immediate forerunners of the modern human species, Homo sapiens. They were the first to use fire, first to have habitations, first to use stone tools with a definite style, and first to inhabit the temperate regions of Europe and Asia; they are indisputably human.

Furthermore, the fossils found at Zhoukoudian remain unique in the annals of human prehistory. Although Homo erectus has been found elsewhere, the remains have most often consisted of fragmentary and isolated finds that natural processes have often removed from where the individuals died. Nowhere else have so many individuals been found who are more or less contemporaneous and who died on the spot, surrounded by their tools, their hearths, and their garbage. As a result, the fossils from Zhoukoudian reveal what the range of variation was for this species, and their relatively in situ position tells much about how they lived and what they ate. They are fundamental in defining the species Homo erectus, and they are unique pieces in the puzzle of human evolution. Peking man Anthropology;ancient man Fossils;Peking man

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brace, C. Loring. The Stages of Human Evolution: Human and Cultural Origins. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. Well-written general account of human evolution also presents a short history of evolutionary thought, together with descriptions of the discovery of important human fossils and the controversies that often ensued. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howells, W. W. “Homo Erectus in Human Descent: Ideas and Problems.” In Homo Erectus: Papers in Honor of Davidson Black, edited by Becky A. Sigmon and Jerome S. Cybulski. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981. Provides a clear and succinct summary of current scientific thought regarding Peking man’s position in human evolution. Somewhat technical, but indispensable for an understanding of the current status of Homo erectus. Includes illustrations, a map of fossil hominid sites, and excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koenigswald, Gustav Heinrich Ralph von. Meeting Prehistoric Man. Translated by Michael Bullock. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. Although outdated scientifically, provides enjoyable discussion of “dragon’s bones” and of the exhilaration of the early finds in Java and China. Koenigswald worked in Java and later at the American Museum of Natural History and was a close associate of Weidenreich. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oosterzee, Penny van. Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man. New York: Perseus Books, 2000. Historical account for lay readers describes the activities that led to the discovery of Peking man and the events that followed. The author is an Australian ecologist and science writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shapiro, Harry L. Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance, and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Combines good scholarship with exciting narrative. Shapiro was associated with the American Museum of Natural History for more than fifty years and knew Weidenreich well. Includes illustrations and charts of geological time and of Peking man’s place on the evolutionary tree.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tattersall, Ian. The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Examination for a lay audience of the evidence concerning humans’ relation to the Neanderthals. Provides background on paleoanthropology in general and current knowledge about the hominid line. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weidenreich, Franz. “The Face of Peking Woman: Latest Developments Regarding Our Celebrated Ape-like Relative.” Natural History 41 (May, 1938): 358-360. A description of the reconstructed face of Peking woman written for the general public. Clearly conveys the satisfaction that Weidenreich felt regarding his reconstruction. Includes excellent illustrations and bibliography.

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Categories: History