The Scientific Fate of Homo erectus The Muddle in the Middle

By 1946 the world had realized that the famed Peking Man fossils had been lost during World War II. Their scientific memory was kept alive by the comprehensive publications of Weidenreich. But as masterful as these works were, Weidenreich's monographs and papers became much like a requiem to the lost fossils. Not only were the originals no longer available for study and comparison by other scientists but there was no hope of excavating again at Longgushan to obtain new fossils. While Weidenreich finished the last of his publications in New York, civil war raged on in China between the Nationalists and the Communists. Eventually the Communists, under Mao Tse-tung, would prevail, and in October 1949 the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. By then Weidenreich, who had harbored hopes of going back to China to resume the work at Longgushan, had died.

China remained politically and scientifically cut off from the West for many years, as other wars, in Korea and Vietnam, ravaged Asia. Although this lack of scientific communication clearly contributed to a decline of research on Homo erectus, another factor was much more important in causing the fading of scientific awareness of the species. The tide of discovery in Africa of earlier and more primitive hominids known as australop-ithecines, and the development of new methods of accurately dating them, occupied most paleoanthropological researchers in the 1950s and subsequent decades.26 Early hominid fossils coming out of South and East Africa eclipsed Homo erectus and drew attention away from Asia as a center of human evolution. Homo erectus, while not forgotten, was unceremoniously shoved out of the limelight.

Homo erectus then turned up unexpectedly in the African country of Tanzania, uncovered at the famous site of Olduvai Gorge by Kenyan-British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in 1960. The skullcap that was found eroding out of Bed II could have easily fit into the series of skulls found at Longgushan, except that Longgushan was two continents away and of younger geological age. Estimates of the age of the skull, called Olduvai Hominid 9, hovered around 1.4 million years. Leakey, who was avowedly looking for the direct ancestor of modern Homo sapiens in Africa, seemed embarrassed to have found a species so closely associated with Asia and one that he considered completely off the line of evolution to more advanced humans. In 1963 the German paleoanthropologist Gerhard Heberer named the new fossil Homo leakeyi, but Leakey barely acknowledged the honor. Even he recognized that the skull was closely allied to fossils published by Dubois, Black, and Weidenreich and now widely assigned to Homo erectus. Leakey was much more enamored of the earlier hominids that he and his team had discovered at Olduvai that became known as Australopithecus (originally Zinjanthropus) boisei (nicknamed "Dear Boy") and Homo habilis (lovingly termed "Olduvai George," "Cinderella," "Jonny's Boy," and "Twiggy"). Olduvai Hominid 9 (OH 9), an out-of-place Asian black sheep, never got a cute nickname. He was pushed to the back of the museum shelf and largely forgotten. Leakey regarded OH 9 as a specialized if not aberrant hominid that was not closely related to the human lineage.

Leakey's opinion of African Homo erectus was never mainstream, but he did have some basis for his ideas. Despite the fact that Homo erectus fell between Homo sapiens and Homo habilis in brain size, it had the thick skull bones and strange cranial tori that neither the earlier nor the later species possessed. Leakey chose to draw a line on his evolutionary tree directly from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens, bypassing Homo erectus. Only recently have further fossil discoveries in Africa, Asia, and Europe definitively

The black sheep of Louis Leakey's fossil hominid discoveries from Olduvai Gorge, Olduvai Hominid 9—a Homo erectus skullcap from Upper Bed II, dating to approximately 1.4 million years ago. Left: side view. Right: front view. Scales are 1 cm.

refuted this hypothesis by documenting fossil intermediates connecting Homo erectus with both earlier and later species.27

The discovery in Africa of Homo erectus was also ultimately to disprove Weidenreich's hypothesis of the giant ancestry of Homo sapiens. Hundreds of hominid fossils from Africa, and even fossilized footprints, now document that our earliest hominid ancestors were small-bodied. Homo erectus, far from being the smallest of an evolving human lineage, is now known to have been the first hominid of virtually modern human body size and proportions. Weidenreich's early ideas, advanced to explain the unusually thick cranial vault and other anatomical peculiarities of Homo erectus, fell prey to a more complete fossil record found in better-dated contexts. Yet the time between the demise of Homo habilis, about 1.6 million years ago, and the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis, now put at approximately 600,000 years ago, has been aptly termed the "muddle in the middle."28 This one million-year period of time was when hominids left Africa and populated most of the Old World. Homo erectus was the species responsible and we are only now learning how this amazing event happened.

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