One of the most famous ‘people’ to ever live in what is now China is Peking Man, whose unusual skull was found piece-by-piece in the 1920s and led anthropologists to declare him to be of a subspecies of Homo erectus they named Homo erectus pekinensis. Peking Man lived about 800,000 years ago and his age plus his unusual skull shape -- long with a protruding bar across the forehead – made him world famous after it was fully reconstructed and used for a time to push the hypothesis that humans evolved in Asia. Peking Man later became a political pawn of the Chinese Communist Revolution, and many still support the ‘Out of Asia’ hypothesis over the more commonly accepted ‘Out of Africa’ theory on the origin of modern humans. Things could get complicated again as a new well-preserved ancient Chinese skull has been discovered that predates Peking Man by 200,000 years. Will “Yunxian Man” become as famous as his younger neighbor?
“China's National Cultural Heritage Administration announced on Wednesday the discovery of a relatively well-preserved ancient human fossilized skull from the early Paleolithic period, believed to be the most intact specimen from homo erectus of that age found in inland Eurasia so far.”
China.org, South China Morning Post and other Chinese news sources reported the discovery of the skull at the Xuetang Liangzi site in Miduosi Village, Qingqu Town, Yunyang District, Shiyan City in the Hubei province of central China. This is the same site where, in 1989 and 1990, two partial skulls were found dating from 800,000 to 1.1 million years ago. They were also members of Homo erectus and became known as the "Yunxian people." However, the most recent find is nearly complete and provides the best look at the ancient humans living in Asia 800,000 to 1.1 million years ago.
“Ancient humans liked to live at the confluence of two rivers and at the bend of big rivers. This place had a suitable climate at that time, and it could be described as a geomantic treasure land for ancient human life."
Zhu Hengfu, deputy director of Shiyan City Museum, explained to cnhubei.com why said this became home to homo erectus and such a repository of ancient remains. The Liangzi site is located at the mouth of the Quyuan River where it merges into the Han River. The surrounding terrain was user-friendly – the mountains are low and the slopes are easy to walk. All three of the skulls were found within 30 meters of each other and the area was an obvious good place to live – other fossils at the site include saber-toothed elephants, rhinos, tapirs, cattle, deer, monkeys, wild boars, piglets and hyenas. While homo erectus dates back 2 million years, this million-year-old skull is in such complete condition that it will help in research of the fossils of the species found at other sites around the world, as onsite excavation leader Gao Xing explained during the press conference announcing the discovery.
“There are very few human fossils around one million years old. In China and East Asia, the only ones over one million years old are Yuanmou Man, which dates back to 1.7 million years ago, and Lantian Man, which is around 1.6 million to 1.2 million years old.”
Yuanmou Man lived in the Yuanmou Basin in the Yunnan Province, southwestern China, and is know only by two upper first incisors from a male and a partial tibia from a female. Lantian Man (Homo erectus lantianensis) is another subspecies of Homo erectus known from a lower jawbone and a partial skull found in Lantian County on the Loess Plateau. Its age makes Lantian Man the second-oldest H. erectus beyond Africa and the oldest in East Asia. For comparison, Peking Man inhabited the Zhoukoudian Cave of northern China during the Middle Pleistocene from 800,000 years ago to around 230,000 years ago.
“What scientists can discover about this long-extinct species has clear relevance to the study of the evolution of modern humans. Homo erectus is the forerunner of Homo antecessor, the last common ancestor of both modern humans and Neanderthals. This means Homo erectus is just two steps removed from Homo sapiens (us) and features many characteristics that make it easily recognizable as one of our long-lost cousins.”
According to Ancient Origins, Homo antecessor is the last common ancestors of modern humans, the Denisovans, and the Neanderthals – all of which were found in Asia. Along with evidence of breeding between them. What Yunxian Man brings to the discussion is his placement just before Peking Man, which puts it in the middle of the Homo erectus evolutionary tree in Asia. That positioning will give anthropologists a better picture of the looks and characteristics of the Homo erectus subspecies which came before it, including the ancestors who made the trip from Africa.
Despite the fact that Yunxian Man and his group existed so long ago, the Chinese archaeologists have been able to determine certain facts about their lifestyle. Based on the artifacts and animal bones uncovered at Xuetang Liangzi, it seems this version of Homo erectus was skilled at making tools and was quite successful at hunting large mammals.
“In the same layer as the skull, a large number of mammal fossils have been unearthed, most of which are rhinos, elephants, horses and deer.”
Gao Xing says that most of the animal bones found with the Yunxian Man were herbivores, but there were a few fossils from meat-eating big cat ancestors of modern tigers and leopards. That made Yunxian Man part of a hunter-gatherer culture which existed for thousands of generations, passing on the skills needed to make stone tools for killing and butchering large mammals.
Fang Qin, director of the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, told Jimu News what a big deal the discovery of the skull of Yunxian Man really is.
"This shows that the area of the Han River basin with Yunyang as the core is an important area for the study of the origin, evolution and development of ancient humans, and it can be called a rare human evolution corridor. We will build this area into a research center for human origins."
Will Yunxian Man become more famous than Peking Man? That’s hard to say. Peking Man had a unique appearance, there was less competition when he was discovered, and he benefited from promotion by the leaders of the Chinese Communist Revolution who used him to promote Marxism and the benefit of science over tradition, religion and superstition. A better vision might be to show how – like the Denisovans, Neanderthals and early modern humans – they all managed to get along when their paths crossed.