Reviewer: LaSamuel Stallworth Time: Tuesday October 8th 2002 00:00
Citation: Boaz, Noel T., Ciochon, Russell L.. 2001. The Scavenging of 'Peking Man'.
Natural History, 110:46-52.
Abstract: Examines the evidences of Homo erectus found at the Peking Man Site in Zhoukoudian, China which suggests that the site was not the home of the Homo erectus. Cannibalism theory proposed by archaeologist Henri Breuil, Results of tests on the giant hyena hypothesis, Hypothesis on why evidence of fire was present on the site.
Critique: This article discusses the findings of an eighty-one year excavation in Zhoukoudian, China, a town about thirty miles southwest of Beijing. The excavation focused mainly on Longgushan, Dragon Bone Hill, a cave where large collections of Homo erectus pekinensis (Peking man) fossils were found. The remains of forty-five individuals were found, more than half were of women and children. Stone tools, debris from tool manufacturing, and thousands of animal bones were found along with the remains (46). Ash was also found at the site, suggesting the Peking man had mastered the use of fire. Many excavators initially suggested that the caves were the homes of H. erectus pekinensis. They deducted that the stone tools and animal bones, the remains of meals, were evidence of hunting expertise (46). Ash that was discovered in the cave was found in horizontal patches within deposits, or in vertical patches against the wall. This suggested that fire was being contained in hearths (46). The hunter hypothesis soon gave way to a more sensational view of the Peking man, where some excavators deducted that evidence found at the site suggested cannibalism. Trained anatomists claimed to find signs of trauma to skulls, with both blunt and sharp objects such as clubs and sharp tools (47). The damage done to the remains appeared to be systematic, suggesting decapitation and cuts along bones that suggested efforts to extract marrow (47). There was still one other, more likely, view that dissented from the first two hypotheses. Upon closer inspection of the Peking man remains, excavators found that many of the bones resembled modern bones broken up by hyenas. This soon led way to a hypothesis that stated that H. erectus were not the inhabitants of the Longgushan cave, nor were they the hunters or cannibals that some had earlier suggested. Instead, it was suggested that the main inhabitants of the cave were a giant species of hyena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris (48). This view was furthered along by researchers concluding that the largest number of animal remains found at Longgushan were actually those of the giant hyena. To further prove the hypothesis of the H. erectus being prey to hyenas, more analysis was done to the fossils of Peking man in hopes of seeing more evidence of trauma due to carnivores. Closer analysis showed that the pattern of damage done to H. erectus remains was in line with the carnivorous behavior of modern hyenas (48). Bite marks on the brow ridge suggest that the giant hyenas chewed the faces of their prey, being that it is a very vulnerable spot (49). Also, the lack of full Peking man remains in Longgushan suggest that they were prey to giant hyenas. Most of the remains consist of external limbs, those areas being the most vulnerable to attack. The trauma done to those remains, puncture marks fracture patterns, suggest patterns comparable to feeding activity of modern hyenas (49). Along with evidence that suggests the Peking man was prey instead of hunter, there is also evidence that minimizes their activity within Longgushan. The fossil evidence was most damaging to the hunter hypothesis, but it still didn't explain the apparent use of controlled fire (as evidenced by the ash deposits). Studies done on the ash found that there were no silica-rich layers, and a lack of silica shows a lack of wood or any other substance that may have been used to start a contained fire (51). This led researchers to conclude that while fire was present in the cave, it was not in a controlled state as originally hypothesized (51). Lastly, though briefly, it is suggested that any evidence of Peking man activity in Longgushan is due to scavenging on the remains of prey brought in by giant hyenas (52). Some even suggest that the deposit of ash may show how H. erectus was able to use fire to keep hyenas a bay while they were able to snatch portions of carrion (52). This article has great background and shows how differing hypotheses can lead to larger answers concerning our human ancestors. The only problem is that the supposed subject, as seen in the title, is only given one brief paragraph at the very. A continued looked at differing views concerning H. erectus activity would have been better appreciated than the 'to be continued' the end of this article leaves the reader with.