Wenzhong Pei Discovers the First Hominid Skull

Davidson Black had dug himself a scientific hole as deep as the exacavations at the Zhoukoudian cave. To avoid its becoming a professional grave, he needed more fossils. A skull would be critical for the eventual acceptance of Sinanthropus pekinensis, simply because so much of the identity of a mammal species is evinced by its facial, cerebral, ocular, nasal, and dental anatomy. The first fragmentary skulls of Peking Man were finally discovered in 1928.

After a winter of lab work, Birger Bohlin was ready to get back to the field in the spring of 1928. Dr. Zhongjian Yang (whose name was then anglicized as C. C. Young), a newly graduated paleontologist (China's first) trained at the University of Munich at the suggestion of Professor Grabau, and Wenzhong Pei (later Dr., then rendered as W. C. Pei), another of Grabau's students, were to be assisting this season. Upward of 60 workers were to be hired at the site.

The excavations of 1928 started near the point at which the fossil molar had been found the previous year, in the northwestern part of the cave. About ten meters higher in the section of the limestone, more teeth, fragments of mandibles, and pieces of skull were found. Bohlin wrote to Andersson back in Sweden about this "whole nest of Sinanthropus remains."29 Back in the Beijing lab, sediment from the original molar site was being slowly broken down and prepared, and more Sinanthropus teeth and bones were also being found, as Bohlin had predicted. The researchers called the "nests" of fossils "loci." "Locus A" was the 1927 point of discovery of the first molar and "Locus B" was the new cluster of hominid fossils.

Lower jaws were the first fossils of Peking Man's head to be found. The sediment from Locus A gave up a right half of an adult mandible, and Locus B revealed a juvenile jawbone with its chin region intact. Davidson Black, with characteristic alacrity, published his descriptions of the specimens early the next year.30 His conclusions are quite interesting, not so much for what they indicate about the ultimate identity of the species Homo erectus, but how much they reveal about what Davidson Black expected the new species to look like.

Black's 1929 paper, published in the Bulktin of the Geological Society of China, emphasized how apelike the profile of the Locus B juvenile Sinan-thropus chin region was. It looks in his figures as close to the same angle as the chin region of a young chimpanzee, which he illustrated, and very distinct from the jutting, pointed chin of a modern Chinese child. As an implied evolutionary progression, he illustrated a Late Stone Age Chinese jaw, between the Longgushan specimen and the modern human jaw.

Black wondered what sort of skull went with this apelike jaw. Only a few skull bones, as yet imperfectly cleaned in 1928 (Skulls I and II from Locus B), gave him some idea of cranial form. The bones were quite thick but they were fragmentary. Andersson31 summarized Black's conclusions: "The Sinanthropus corresponds very closely with modern man in size of brain." In retrospect, this is a very surprising deduction for a species now known to have an average brain size only three-quarters the size of modern Homo sapiens brains. What could Black have been thinking? Almost certainly, Black's initial conception of Peking Man was that of Eoanthropus dawsoni—Piltdown Man—the fraudulent English chimera of ape jaw and modern human skull that masqueraded as a hominid ancestor until 1953.32 He knew that his knowledge of the true skull form of Sinanthropus was very imperfect and that an intact skull needed to be discovered at Longgushan for the mystery to be resolved. That Sinanthropus would turn out to be a very different animal from Piltdown was to be Davidson Black's biggest shock.

The 1929 field season saw a changing of the guard at the Longgushan cave site. The last of the Swedish contingent, under whose guidance Longgushan had progressed from enchanted dragon bone quarry to world-renowned hominid fossil site, now left the fieldwork in the able hands of Dr. Yang and Mr. Pei. Birger Bohlin joined another Swedish field expedition to western China after he had finished the 1928 field season, and then ultimately returned to Sweden. The excavation of Longgushan was henceforth to be a Chinese undertaking. The work continued with renewed vigor beginning in April 1929.

Yang and Pei expanded the excavation program. The fossils poured out of the old cave site, and although most were broken and fragmentary, there

The Skull The Peking Man

The research team in the village of Zhoukoudian in 1929. From left to right: archaeologist Wenzhong Pei, who later in the field season would discover the first intact skull of Peking Man in the Lower Cave; field assistants Hengsheng Wang and Gongmu Wang; paleontologist Zhongjian Yang, as the first Chinese excavation head for the project, he published extensively on the fossil vertebrates from the site; Swedish paleontologist Birger Bohlin, who directed excavations in 1927 and 1928; Canadian anatomist Davidson Black, indefatigable professor of anatomy at Peking Union Medical College, and first honorary director of the Cenozoic Research Laboratory in Beijing where the fossils were studied; French Jesuit cleric Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, influential Pleistocene geologist who studied many aspects of Dragon Bone Hill geology, paleontology, and archaeology; Irish geologist George Barbour (later of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History) who studied geology of the site.

were many beautifully preserved specimens. A complete and intact skeleton of the giant Pleistocene hyena, now known as Pachycrocuta brevirostris, was discovered. The list of species of animals discovered at Longgushan continued to grow. More fossils of a non-hominid primate, an extinct macaque monkey, were found. But throughout the long months of digging, the hominid skull that would nail down the identity of Peking Man eluded the excavators.

There is an old superstition that is virtually universal among veteran paleoanthropologists—you always discover the best fossils at the very end of the field season. This had happened at the end of the 1927 season at Longgushan when Bohlin had found the first tooth, and it happened again in 1929.

December had come to northern China and the first snows had fallen in the hills surrounding Zhoukoudian. Pails of water froze overnight. The excavation at the cave had followed a fissure filling, replete with fossils, into the depths of the cave. Only three men could fit at the bottom of this narrow, dark, and cold hole, dug down into what was termed the "Lower Cave." They dug by candlelight. They had dug longer than normal because Wenzhong Pei had a hunch they would find something important.

On the afternoon of December 2, Pei's rock pick pulled away a piece of consolidated sandy and pebbly cave sediment that revealed a tantalizingly interesting round surface of bone. His heart jumped as he carefully began to clean off the edges of the fossil, which was still embedded in the wall of the cave. It continued to curve around. There were no antlers or horns. There was no long snout. There were no extended crests of bone. Just the rounded, beautiful simplicity of a hominid skull. The realization dawned that he had found it—the long-sought-after skull of Peking Man. But his elation quickly subsided as he began to contemplate the enormity of the responsibility now resting on his shoulders.

Pei found himself at the bottom of a long and rough tunnel with a priceless and exquisitely delicate fossil that could break into hundreds of unidentifiable shards if not handled exactly right. Night was falling and since Pei and the workers had been in the cave since early that morning, they were tired. He would have liked to cover the fossil hominid and come back in the morning when he was fresh, but it was too dangerous. A loose rock could fall on the skull or somebody might even slip in overnight and try to take it. He had to push on. Concentrating and lighting more candles, Pei worked on into the night, removing the skull in two pieces, carefully gluing the fragments and leaving as much of the adhering cave sediment in place as he could for support. He applied plaster bandage supports and waited for them to set. Then the pieces were slowly passed hand to hand up out of the cave. Pei took them to the field building and immediately set them close to the fire so that the glue and plaster would dry and harden.

The next morning Pei hurried to the train depot at Zhoukoudian to send a telegram to Davidson Black and to dispatch letters to Dr. Yang in Beijing and Dr. Weng of the Geological Society that a hominid skull had been found at Longgushan. Back in the office he wrapped the two fossil/ sediment pieces in Chinese cotton paper and then covered them with burlap soaked in flour paste to support them on the outside. It was so cold that even in the relatively warm office, the burlap casings would not dry. Finally, on the third day, Pei put three heaters next to the skull pieces and they hardened.

When he was ready to go he put cotton padding around the fossil and then covered the whole with a quilt, disguising it as regular baggage. He hoped that by hiding the priceless fossil in this way, he could pass unnoticed at the various checkpoints on the road to Beijing. He started from Zhoukoudian by train early on the morning of December 6 and arrived at Beijing, some 40 kilometers away, a little before noon. He went straight to Davidson Black's laboratory to deliver the fossil skull.

Black was elated when he laid eyes on the fossil that Pei placed before him, in perfect, if as yet unprepared, condition. This young Chinese colleague of his was now beaming with delight and he was finally able to breathe again after handing over his treasure. Pei had just delivered Black from scientific limbo and had ensured Black's apotheosis in the firmament of paleoanthropology. And Davidson Black knew it. He was unstinting in his praise, realizing only too well what skill and fortitude it had taken to make this discovery. He made sure that the Chinese Geological Society, which later decided to award him a medal for the discovery, also struck one for Pei. And Black arranged for the Survey to publish Pei's own account of the discovery in its Bulletin.3

Black's trained anatomical eye hungrily scanned the archaic curve of the low skullcap, and the primitively jutting prow of the browridges, even as his political mind excitedly began to compose the letters he would write to the Rockefeller Foundation and his colleagues abroad. His risky but calculated naming of Sinanthropus pekinensis had yielded him two years of funding from the foundation, and now that risk had paid off. He could barely wait to get his hands on the specimen. It was beautifully primitive.

After Pei had carefully finished his cleaning and hardening of the specimen, Black went to work. He isolated each bone, ensured that the broken edges were free of all adhering matrix, and carefully rearticulated each bone into a composite whole. He worked for three months, making cast copies of the skull at each stage of the reconstruction. Black's original casts, signed in plaster by him on the back, are still in Beijing, stored now at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. Even before he was finished, he produced three preliminary papers on the new skull in 1930. His main paper on Peking Man's skull was to appear the following year.34 But, by this time, a second, more fragmentary skull of the Longgushan hominid had been found in the 1930 excavations, and Black also included this specimen in his report.

The recovery in 1929 of what was to become "Skull III," in the terminology of the Peking Man fossils, marks a major turning point in the history of the Zhoukoudian site, as well as in Davidson Black's career. Discoveries of major significance now began cascading rapidly. In 1930 a number of teeth were found as well as another skull. In 1931 major discoveries of stone tools and evidences of fire at Zhoukoudian were made. In 1932 a well-preserved jaw bone of Sinanthropus was discovered. This specimen was to be the last fossil hominid from Zhoukoudian that Davidson Black was to study.

Limited only by how fast he could work and how much he could organize, Black had achieved everything he could have dreamed of. After a whirlwind tour of the Middle East and India, a return to his native Canada, and a trip to London to address the Royal Society, into which he had just been inducted, he returned to China in the autumn of 1933. Exhausted, he still went to Zhoukoudian at the end of the 1933 excavations. At the cave he collapsed but then continued with his examination of the site. When he returned to Beijing, he secretly went to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that he had suffered a mild heart attack. He kept his condition from even his wife. But in February he was hospitalized in Beijing for three weeks. Aware that his father had died of a heart attack at the age of 49 (Black was then four months shy of his forty-ninth birthday) and that his prognosis was assessed as "grave," he seems to have decided to die at his workbench. At about 5:00 p.m. on March 15, 1934, Davidson Black went into his laboratory, intending to work all night, as was his habit, for the first time since he had been released from the hospital. He reportedly chatted cheerfully with colleagues in the department before going to work at his desk. One of his last visitors was Dr. Yang, who recounted that he "found him sitting at his desk where he had worked for years and years at science. He talked of his anxiety as to whether his plans for the Cenozoic Research Laboratory could be carried out."35 These anxious thoughts were close to Davidson Black's last. When Associate Professor of Anatomy Paul Stephenson came in around half an hour later, Black, still dressed in his white lab coat, was slumped over near his desk. He had died dramatically flanked by two of his greatest discoveries—Sinanthropus Skull III and the skull of Homo sapiens from the Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian.36 His last paper, his lecture to the Royal Society in London, was to be published later that year, and it would be his last word on his fossils.

Amid all the furor and thrill of discovery of Davidson Black's last years, there had dawned, as well, a profound realization that Longgushan was beginning to reveal a very different version of human evolution than what Black or any of his colleagues had expected. As wonderful as Sinanthropus was, the species did not have the capacious brain box and aquiline features that Black and his mentors back in England had expected in this ancient ancestor of humanity. Sinanthropus was a far cry from Piltdown. But longheld preconceptions die hard. As the discoveries were continuing to come out of Dragon Bone Hill, someone needed to take up the torch for the fallen Black, describe the anatomy of the new fossils, and make some sense of it all.

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