Zdansky Discovers Peking Man Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Otto Zdansky discovered a tooth that provided the first evidence that Homo erectus had existed outside Java.

Summary of Event

The story of the discovery (and subsequent loss) of Peking man is one of the most engrossing in the history of anthropology. It began in 1899 when K. A. Haberer, physician to the German legation at China’s capital city of Beijing (then known in the West as Peking), found his movements seriously restricted by the violent Boxer Rebellion and wisely limited his avocation of fossil hunting to urban drugstores. (It had long been traditional in China to grind up vertebrate mammalian fossils and use them for medicine.) Haberer then sent his voluminous collection of fossils in several shipments to Munich, where his friend Max Schlosser Schlosser, Max described them in a monograph titled Die fossilen Säugethiere Chinas (1903; Fossil Primates of China, 1924). Fossil Primates of China (Schlosser) Peking man Anthropology;ancient man Fossils;Peking man [kw]Zdansky Discovers Peking Man (Summer, 1923) [kw]Peking Man, Zdansky Discovers (Summer, 1923) [kw]Man, Zdansky Discovers Peking (Summer, 1923) Peking man Anthropology;ancient man Fossils;Peking man [g]China;Summer, 1923: Zdansky Discovers Peking Man[05820] [g]East Asia;Summer, 1923: Zdansky Discovers Peking Man[05820] [c]Anthropology;Summer, 1923: Zdansky Discovers Peking Man[05820] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Summer, 1923: Zdansky Discovers Peking Man[05820] Zdansky, Otto Andersson, Johan Gunnar Black, Davidson Weidenreich, Franz Pei Wenzhong

All the fossils in the collection were mammalian—it included no fossils of reptiles or birds—and one particularly distinctive tooth seemed to be either apelike or human. Eventually, it proved to be that of a prehistoric ape, but as a significant body of evidence from a previously little known locality the collection as a whole, and the enigmatic tooth especially, aroused interest throughout the West, in large part because Schlosser boldly predicted that some new form of prehistoric fossil would soon be found in China. Nothing further took place, however, until 1918, when Johan Gunnar Andersson turned to professional fossil collecting in China on behalf of Swedish institutions. When his discoveries proved to be not only abundant but also interesting, the Swedish Paleontological Institute of Uppsala sent Otto Zdansky, a professionally trained paleontologist, to China to improve the scientific quality of Andersson’s work.

Zdansky arrived in the summer of 1921 and began operations of his own at an abandoned limestone quarry approximately thirty miles (roughly forty-eight kilometers) southwest of Beijing near the village of Zhoukoudian. Andersson had already described the site two years before and recommended it to Zdansky. The site was known locally as Chicken Bone Hill. After excavations began, however, Zdansky’s workmen told him of a richer site, called Dragon Bone Hill, adjacent to another abandoned quarry on the other side of the village. On his first visit to the site, Zdansky was accompanied by Andersson, who immediately noticed a number of incongruous quartz fragments and identified them as chipped tools. Zdansky, however, did not agree that the fragments were tools.

Later, while excavating by himself in 1923, Zdansky found a single molar tooth at Dragon Bone Hill, the first fossil evidence of Peking man. Curiously, however, he did not inform Andersson of his find (relations between the two men were somewhat strained), and he made no mention of it in his publications until 1926, when he had returned to Sweden. By that time, Zdansky’s longtime patron (as chairman of the Swedish China Research Committee), Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, was scheduled to visit China. Asked to contribute finds, Zdansky informed Andersson of the two teeth he had earlier discovered (a second example having turned up before he left China). At a reception in Beijing on October 22, 1926, Andersson, in turn, informed the prince and the world. The news caused a sensation everywhere in the educated world, as the fossil remains now called Peking man were thought to represent the oldest form of humanity known.

Among those present at the Beijing meeting was Davidson Black, a professor of anatomy who had long been interested in the biological history of humankind. Without having seen Zdansky’s actual specimens (which were still in Sweden), Black wrote two short papers proclaiming that “the actual presence of early man in Eastern Asia is no longer a matter of conjecture” and concluding that the hypothesis that humans had originated in Asia was now considerably substantiated. In a more cautious paper of his own, Zdansky pointedly failed to endorse either assertion, regarding the teeth as only probably human and the evidence too scant to support any far-reaching conclusions.

With support from Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, the Geological Survey of China, and the Rockefeller Foundation, Black now undertook a further round of excavations at Zhoukoudian. Having accepted an appointment at Cairo University, Zdansky declined to head the project and was replaced by Birger Bohlin, Bohlin, Birger another Swedish paleontologist. Only three days before the end of the first season’s work, on October 16, 1927, Bohlin found a beautifully preserved left lower molar tooth. On the basis of only three teeth, two of which he had never seen, Black confidently proposed a new hominid genus called Sinanthropus pekinensis.

Despite extensive efforts, further excavations yielded nothing of fundamental importance until December, 1929, when Black’s Chinese assistant Pei Wenzhong found an almost complete skull of Peking man partially embedded in a cave. Black (and several coauthors) described this skull, jawbone fragments found earlier, various teeth, and a large collection of nonhuman fossils from the site in 1933 in the well-known publication Fossil Man in China. Fossil Man in China (Black, D., et al.) After Black’s premature death in 1934, however, a comparison of the skull that Pei had found with fragments discovered by Eugène Dubois Dubois, Eugène in Java (known as Java man) Java man revealed them to be so nearly identical that separate designations for the two finds seemed inappropriate. The name Sinanthropus was therefore discarded in favor of Homo erectus, Homo erectus which applied to both examples.

From 1934 to 1937, when military conditions forced a halt, continuing excavations at Zhoukoudian revealed a wonderful collection of skulls, jaws, teeth, and even some limb bones. Anthropologist Franz Weidenreich then studied, described, and made casts of these specimens, publishing his findings in a series of admirably competent monographs. In April, 1941, he brought the casts, photographs, and his notes with him to the United States. In December, 1941, an attempt was made to evacuate the specimens from Beijing to a waiting American ship. Unfortunately, war between Japan and the United States broke out, forcing the interruption of the shipment, and the precious fossils disappeared.


The most immediate consequence of the discovery of Peking man was that it appeared to confirm—with fossil evidence for the first time—a long-prevalent belief that humankind originated in Asia. Earlier work in archaeology (the discovery of the Sumerians by Sir Leonard Woolley in particular) had already established Asia as the home of human civilization. It seemed logical, then, to assume that Asia had also been the original habitat for uncivilized humankind. It is believed today that humankind originated in Africa, as Charles Darwin suggested. The first significant fossil evidence in support of this hypothesis was the discovery of Australopithecus Australopithecus (the Taung child) by Raymond Arthur Dart Dart, Raymond Arthur in 1924. Australopithecus was still not fully human, and some assert that it was never part of human ancestry at all. The more obviously human Sinanthropus distracted attention from Australopithecus and the African-origin hypothesis, thereby delaying its acceptance. As a result, early African discoverers such as Robert Bloom Bloom, Robert and L. S. B. Leakey Leakey, L. S. B. found it somewhat more difficult to obtain a hearing for their beliefs.

Prior to its identification as Homo erectus, moreover, Peking man further complicated human genealogy by appearing to be a separate genus. Leakey cleverly utilized this perception in his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934), Adam’s Ancestors (Leakey)[Adams Ancestors] in which he argued that the known diversity of prehistoric human types (Java man, Peking man, the since-discredited Piltdown man, and the since-redated Kanam man) was evidence of an extremely long period of prior evolution and therefore pushed human origins back into the Miocene epoch. Eventually, further discoveries by the Leakeys and others would indeed place Homo erectus closer to the end of human evolution than to the beginning. The fact that Homo erectus had been found both in Java and China attested to the migratory diversity of early humans and tended to affirm their unity.

Finally, discoveries in the cave and quarry deposits of Zhoukoudian were revolutionary in that they offered more information regarding the daily living of human ancestors than was available from any previous fossil evidence. Peking man, for example, had used fire, but perhaps without knowing how to make it. He was, moreover, a cannibal and a primitive toolmaker. Many speculations followed as to what life in the caves must have been like. Whatever his merits, Peking man represented the first opportunity that reputable scientists had to study not only early humans but also the society they created. Peking man Anthropology;ancient man Fossils;Peking man

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Davidson, et al. Fossil Man in China: The Choukoutien Cave Deposits, with a Synopsis of Our Present Knowledge of the Late Cenozoic in China. Peiping: Geological Survey of China, 1933. Although intended for specialists, this classic account is necessary to any serious consideration of Black’s work. Includes a useful bibliography of Black’s early papers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Day, Michael H. Guide to Fossil Man. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Excellent source of information regarding any type of fossil, although readers should bear in mind that all books in this fast-moving field quickly become out of date.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewin, Roger. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. A onetime close associate of the Leakeys, Lewin is primarily concerned with the history of discovery in Africa and how researchers’ finds struggled for acceptance in the learned world. He has little to say about the discovery of Peking man, as such, beyond emphasizing its originally negative impact on researchers studying possible African origins of humankind.
  • 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">Reader, John. Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man. 1981. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. Focuses primarily on Africa, but surveys the entire topic of early man in chronological order, with the first five chapters (of twelve) dealing with Neanderthal man, Java man, Piltdown man, Australopithecus, and Peking man. Provides excellent discussion of the context in which Peking man emerged. Includes excellent photographs and a very helpful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wendt, Herbert. In Search of Adam: The Story of Man’s Quest for the Truth About His Earliest Ancestors. Translated by James Cleugh. 1955. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. Although dated, this popular account is comprehensive and well illustrated. Provides an adequate section on Peking man, given the book’s brevity.

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