Once known as Peking, Beijing – China’s capital since the Mongol Yuan dynasty – is a rich jumble of ancient history and modern development. Recent rapid urbanisation and modernization has led to the sprawling northern city to be peppered with avant-garde architecture, shiny skyscrapers and multilane highways.
The Peking man Site at Zhoukoudian, is arguably one of the most widely known excavation sites in the world due to the discovery of hominid localities here. In 1921 Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson found hominid teeth of one of the first specimens of Homo erectus in the sediment of a cave. These remains were christened Peking Man and some time later Otto Zdansky excavated the fossils.
Peking Man Site
Beijing – the national capital of the People’s Republic of China – is a vast city with an orderly grid of streets. The Forbidden City stands at its centre and the surrounding areas are a hotchpotch of opulent palaces, temples, and huge stone walls and gates.
Zhoukoudian – a cave system located 42 kilometres south west of Beijing - gained notoriety in 1921 when fossils of the first specimen of Homo erectus was discovered in the dregs of a cave. Excavations began under the guidance of Otto Zdansky an Austrian geologist and the first hominid remains, a molar tooth was discovered in 1923. Research led scientists to believe that the Peking man lived in this cave approximately 750,000 to 200,000 years ago.
Soon after that, in 1926, a whole skull was discovered by Chinese archaeologist Pei Wen Chung (Pei Wen Zhong) and excited universal interest. The chronology of the first phase of human history, by and large accepted until then, was overthrown by this discovery. After the first dig, the site became a popular archaeological site and extensive excavations followed.
Zhoukoudian Site History
Zhoukoudian – formerly known as Choukoutien – is a series of caves situated 42 kilometres southwest of Beijing. A famous excavation site due to the archaeological discoveries made here, the most notable discovery at this site is the finding of hominid teeth of Peking Man – the first specimens of Homo erectus.
First discovered by Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson in 1921 and later excavated by Otto Zdansky in 1921, the unearthing of Peking Man resulted in a thorough reshuffling of the hitherto accepted chronology of the beginnings of human history.
Successive years and digs consequently led to the location becoming a popular archaeological site; extensive excavations yielded the remains of approximately 45 incomplete individual human bones as well as animal remains and stone flake and chopping tools. This is by far the most extensive collection of Homo erectus samples from a single locality in the world.
In the ‘20s and ‘30s Chinese archaeologists excavated skulls, rough chipped stone tools, heat-affected stones, burnt bones, ash deposits and animal bones that were alleged to be between 500,000 and 230,000 years old, which led to suppositions that this site might have been the birthplace of civilisation.
Unfortunately the 1937 Sino-Japanese conflict interrupted the excavations with the most devastating consequences – in one of the greatest scientific tragedies of the last century, on the eve of the Japanese invasion the fossils mysteriously disappeared during an attempt to send them to the United States. Some fear that the remains of these bones ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Fortunately highly detailed casts had been made and to this day are exhibited in the site museum. Excavations carried out after the war by Chinese archaeologists have led to the discovery of more remnants including a full jaw and several sections of cranium.
Highlights and Features
- Dragon Bone Hill: Visit the exhibition hall which is divided into seven rooms at the top of this hill.
- Room 1: The first room exhibits fossil remains of Peking Man, stone tools, as well as exhibits that depict its appearance and general living conditions. There are also remains that allude to the Peking man's use of fire.
- Room 2: This room houses the Hilltop Caveman's fossils, stone tools, animal fossils and other remains.
- Room 3: The third room exhibits fossils of man to provide a basic understanding of human evolutionary growth.
- Room 4: This room displays Peking Man's dwelling site and the development of human and animal evolution through various geological periods.
- Room 5 & 6: These rooms display other remains including vertebrate fossils such as fish fossils.
- Room 7: This room is home to fossils of a number of the animals – including the bear, elephant, rhinoceros and the tiger – hunted by Peking man.
- Hilltop Caveman Cave: The cave of Hilltop Caveman can actually be explored at Zhoukoudian.
- Peking Man Cave: This 140 metre-wide, 40 metre-high cave can also be explored; it is the original site for the discovery of Peking Man’s fossils.
Good to Know and What not to Miss
With the exception of five teeth, one upper arm bone and one leg bone, the original remains of Peking Man and Hilltop Caveman were lost during World War II. These days the fossils on display are merely casts that were made when the remnants were first discovered.
- Price Range: Adult: Y20; Student: Y10
- How to get there: It’s not that difficult to get to the Peking Man Site; hop on bus 917 at Tianqiao bus terminal and then switch to a special-line bus at Liangxiang or Fangshan. Alternatively you can hire a car and drive onto the Beijing-Shijiazhuang Expressway – take the Yancun exit and then turn right at Zhoukoudian.