Ancestors are important. We like to know where we came from and what sort of legacy our forebears left, but it has only been recently that we have been able to trace the concept of “ancestor” through the depths of geological strata. I may not know the detailed history of my family during the last hundred years or so, but I do know that a number of hominins figure into my family tree.

I am not proud or ashamed of this deeper ancestry which I share with every other Homo sapiens on the planet. It is simply historical fact, but I have to wonder what my education would have been like if earlier hominins ancestral to humans were found in the United States. Would we take pride in the bones and teach schoolchildren how North America was the “cradle of humanity”? Would we place our own values onto the bones and claim that cooperation and democracy were what drove our early evolution? Would we claim the bones as our ancestors alone, a branch of humanity independently generated from other people around the world?

Given that early primates died out in North America long before the appearance of apes, much less hominins, these questions are impossible to answer. As absurd as they may seem, however, they all relate to the interaction between science and culture and were inspired by Sigrid Schmalzer’s new book The People’s Peking Man.

During the first half of the 20th century a fossil site at Zhoukoudian (near Bejing) in China became famous for the Homo erectus fossils discovered there. Unfortunately the bones went missing with the outbreak of WWII and have been largely pushed to the evolutionary sidelines in the wake of discoveries in Africa, but this is largely a western perspective. In China “Peking Man” has been (and still is) an important symbol of national pride and provides a key to the changing relationship between science and culture in China.

The “original” Peking Man discoveries made during the 1920′s and 1930′s were the result of a collaboration between an international team of scientists. The prestige and duties were not evenly shared. Although Chinese paleoanthropologists were integral to the study of the site (it was Pei Wenzhong, after all, who found the first skull cap) the scientists from Europe and North America dominated the research. Some, like Davidson Black, made efforts to maintain local involvement and worked closely with Chinese scientists, but it almost seemed as if the fossils intellectually belonged to the scientists from the West.

This unequal relationship changed with the rise of Mao Zedong and communist China. Science became a top priority and the interpretation of Peking Man would fall to Chinese scientists and foreign one. Even though many anthropologists thought that humans had evolved in Asia the status of Peking Man as ancestral to our species was initially uncertain. Eventually fossils from Africa would overshadow Homo erectus from China in importance to the evolution of our species, but this was not so in China. Peking Man became a point of national pride and was used as proof that “labor created humanity.”

The symbolic power of Peking Man was also used in a systematic effort to stamp out “superstition.” Old stories and fables need not be heeded; the Chinese people had a real ancestor that confirmed the views of Marx & Engels. The problem with “superstition”, however, is that is incredibly difficult to eradicate. As Schmalzer points out scientific findings like those surrounding Peking Man were not generally dismissed outright. They were often married to pre-existing cultural beliefs and values, particularly involving the ancestry of the inhabitants of China. Peking Man, for instance, has a counterpart in a Chinese version of Bigfoot generally known as yeren. If apes could progressively evolve into humans, why couldn’t humans go “backwards” and become more bestial out in the woods? Together Peking Man and the yeren serve as brackets to our own existence and both remain popular.

The status and cultural role of Peking Man continues to change to this day. The idea that “labor created humanity” has largely fallen out of fashion, but the ties between the Homo erectus fossils from Dragon Bone Hill and the Chinese people are still strong. Even though the Out Of Africa hypothesis for the origin of modern humans is supported by a large amount of interdisciplinary evidence the idea that the Chinese people evolved from Peking Man is a cherished one in that country. There appears to be a preference for “endemic” ancestors over believing that they disappeared or were wiped out by some invading force from elsewhere. (Racism against dark-skinned people in China may also contribute to the reluctance to accept the Out of Africa hypothesis.) This is not to say that these beliefs about the origin of the Chinese people are entirely based in racism or nationalism. The paleoanthropologists who espouse them bring forth what they feel is convincing empirical evidence, but how that evidence is influenced by beliefs and values needs to be examined.

It is difficult to do justice to Schmalzer’s book in a short review. The People’s Peking Man is a well-researched and convincingly argued survey of the relationship between the scientific examination of human evolution, politics, and culture in China during the 20th century. As such it is a book that will no doubt be of value to social scientists, paleoanthropologists, historians of science, science popularizers, and many others. It is a unique contribution to the history of interaction between science and popular culture, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  1. #1 Grace
    March 16, 2009

    This sounds like a rather interesting read. You have convinced me to see if it is any of the libraries around me so I can read it. Thanks!

  2. #2 pough
    March 16, 2009

    Given that early primates died out in North America long before the appearance of apes, much less hominins…

    Can you give a little more information on this? Aren’t there primates in Mexico? Were there older types of primate in the Americas, but they died out and then more modern forms re-colonized later on?

  3. #3 Laelaps
    March 16, 2009

    Pough; It could be a whole post by itself! Perhaps I will have to work on that…

    The short version is that during the Paleocene and early Eocene North America was home to a diversity of early primates and primate-like creatures. (The distinction as to what makes a “true” primate is ongoing.) There were lemur-like primates like Notharctus and tarsier-like ones like Tetonius, which were preceded but the somewhat squirrel-like plesiadapids.

    The precise center of origin for primates is difficult to pin down, but North America and Asia were important continents for early primate evolution. They spread through the forests of the warmer world but eventually died out entirely in North America. The New World monkeys are descendants of monkeys that made it to South America, perhaps by rafting, around 40 million years ago or so. The primates of Central and South America, then, are descendants of monkeys that had evolved in the “Old World” and underwent their own adaptive radiation once they arrived in South America.

  4. #4 The Ridger
    March 16, 2009

    The monkey post – please? I did not know even that much.