Zhoukoudian (China)

Ancient Homo Erectus in China

Western Wall at Zhoukoudian
Western Wall at Zhoukoudian. Ian Armstrong

Zhoukoudian (also spelled Choukoutien) is the name of a stratified cave site and associated fissures in Fangshan District, about 45 km southwest of Beijing, China where several very ancient archaeological occupations have been identified. The most famous of them is Locality 1 at Longgushan cave, which was excavated in the 1920s by Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson with several Chinese archaeologists, including the father of Chinese archaeology Pei Wenzhong.

In 1929, Pei found the skullcap of what was then called Peking Man (now Beijing Man) the second Homo erectus skull ever found (the first was Java Man; Peking Man was the confirming evidence).

Occupations at Zhoukoudian

The site where Peking Man was discovered contains multiple strata, dated between 700,000 and 130,000 years ago. The top 13 layers recovered over 40 Homo erectus individuals; over 100,000 artifacts including stone tools, plant and animal remains; and large hearth areas. Dates for the Homo erectus layers have been somewhat problematic over the years. Other occupations at Zhoukoudian include the Upper Cave, an important site dated between 18,000 and 11,000 years ago.

Zhoukoudian has been the focus of the debate concerning the Multiregional Hypothesis versus Out of Africa Hypothesis for the origin of Homo sapiens, because of perceived "Asian-like" aspects of the Peking Man skull; not every scholar accepts the perception.

Redating of Zhoukoudian

In March 2009, the journal Nature reported new dates for Zhoukoudian Locality 1, where Peking Man and the other 39 hominid fossils were recovered. Using a fairly new radio-isotopic dating technique based on decay ratios of aluminum-26 and beryllium-10 in quartzite artifacts recovered within the sediment layers, researchers estimate the dates of Peking Man as between 680,000-780,000 years old.

The research is backed up by the types of animal life suggested by the bones: the H. erectus living in Zhoukoudian would have had to have been cold-adapted, supporting the possible use of fire at the cave site.

Fire at Zhoukoudian?

The use of fire in Locality 1 has been suggested but not absolutely confirmed by the presence of bright red sediments (perhaps just coloration by the presence of hematite) and the fact that some of the animal bones found in association with quartzite artifacts had been burned. The latest dates and the climate of the cave during their occupation may be supporting evidence for pushing back the use of fire an additional 200,000 years.

  • Peking Man and the Use of Fire


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This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.