Java Man, Peking Man and Fire Making

Monday, May 21, 2012

About half a million years ago, a new type of man, probably descended from the Australopithecines, evolved in eastern Asia. Some of these early men lived in the jungle near the Solo River, central Java. In 1891, Dutch army doctor Eugene Dubois discovered the fosil remains of an ancient hominid that he called Pithecanthropus erectus, meaning the "Ape Man Who Stands Erect", who is simply known as the Java Man. What did he look like? He had a receding chin, a broad flat nose, projecting jaws, in which were set large teeth arranged in a horseshoe pattern. His brows were thick and his forehead low and sloping. The back of the skull was sharply pointed with a heavy crest of bone, indicating that powerful neck muscles had been attached to the head. About five feet tall, Java Man walked on two feet pretty much the way we do today. His brain capacity was 825 cc; although it was smaller than ours (1450cc), it was larger than Zinjanthropus' and the Australopithecus (550cc). His brain left hemisphere was little larger than the right, indicating that Java Man was right-handed.

Pithecanthropus of Java was not the only man in Asia five hundred thousand years ago. About the time he was roaming the jungles of the East Indies, a close relative of his was growing up in the north. In 1927, near the Chinese village of Choukoutien, only thirty five miles southwest of the great metropolis of Peking, the Canadian anatomist, Dr Davidson Black identified a molar tooth of a previously unknown type of man. Continued digging at the site led to the discovery two years later of a fairly complete skull. Before the Japanese invasion of China cut off all further excavation, the remains of fifty people had been brought to light, all within the same cave. One curious thing was that the number of skulls in the cave was far out of proportion to the number of other bones. Close examination of some of the skulls shed light on this puzzle. In each case the foramen magnum had been widened with some sort of instrument; throughout the ages this has been the classic method by which headhunters have gotten at the contents of the skull. The inhabitants of this cave had not brought these heads home just to hang them on their walls as trophies of the chase; they had skillfully extracted the insides and then probably devoured them.

Both headhunters and their victims belonged to a group we now call Sinanthropus pekinensis, or Peking Man, a type of Pithecanthropus. Their cranial capacity ranged from 850 to 1300 cc; the largest skulls are not much smaller than those of human beings today. The Choukoutien site contained evidence of numerous hearths, including the charred bones of animals. Peking Man was a fire maker, for he knew how to make and use fire. It gave man protection against the cold and allowed him to live beyond the tropics in a variety of climates. It frightened away wild beasts and helped him to find his way in the dark. Its heat killed parasites and germs contained in the meat, but most important perhaps, fire made man a creator. With spinning sticks or bits of flint struck together, he was able to produce heat and light. Did the discovery of fire awaken in him a sense of his powers and of his unique place on this planet?