In the 1920s, when the excavations started at Dragon Bone Hill, the understanding of human evolution was in a confused state. Eugene Dubois, the discoverer of Pithecanthropus from Java, was generally thought to have gone a bit insane in his advanced years. He had buried the fossils under his kitchen floor and had begun to think that he had discovered not the precursor of the human species but a giant gibbon-like primate instead. Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History was mounting a major expedition to Asia to look for the ancestors of humanity so far back in time that he ended up only with fossils of dinosaurs. A fossil tooth of an extinct pig-like peccary from Nebraska was, for a brief time, mistaken for an early humanlike ape in America and named Hesperopithecus. A fossil skull discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa was named Australopithecus and claimed as a new human ancestor from that continent. And Professor Frederick Wood Jones of England was developing his elaborate albeit totally fallacious theory that humans had evolved directly from tarsiers—small, nocturnal, leaping primates now found only in Southeast Asia. Adding to this already rich tapestry of confusion was the "Pilt-down Man" hoax—a modern human skull, a broken orangutan jawbone, and isolated teeth—planted in southern England and claimed by some to be humanity's oldest known ancestor. Out of this paleoanthropological morass there arose in the 1930s a clear ancestor—adroitly discovered, expertly studied, meticulously published, and universally acclaimed. It became widely known as "Peking Man." This book is about that hominid,1 now known scientifically as Homo erectus.
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the smart money was on Asia as the place of origin of the human lineage. Africa, a continent that
future discoveries would make a fossil Mecca, was then virtually a blank on the map of human fossils. Charles Darwin, intellectual grandfather of the evolutionists, preferred Africa as the source of humanity, whereas Alfred Russel Wallace, codeveloper of the theory of natural selection with Darwin, had postulated Asia as the wellspring of the human lineage. The vast majority of researchers agreed on this point with Wallace. German, Swedish, French, Austrian, and American paleontologists flocked to China for the purpose of finding the evolutionary Garden of Eden, but it was a Swedish geologist, J. Gunnar Andersson, who hit real pay dirt. Andersson discovered, developed, and first brought to international attention the northern Chinese site of Dragon Bone Hill. A quarry known in Chinese as "Longgushan" and located north of the village of Zhoukoudian, it would produce the largest cache of early hominid fossils known up to that time. The massive excavation that uncovered the fossils is today still the largest undertaken at a fossil hominid site. The discoveries at Dragon Bone Hill, more than any other single site, became central elements in the modern interpretation of human evolution.
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