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New York Scientist Visits Peking Man

Maggie Scollan, a native of Mahopac, New York and a Boston College alumna (a Gabelli Presidential Scholar, and history and biology major) writes of her experiences visiting Peking Man during a Summer Study Abroad session during her undergraduate degree. Although Maggie was not a student of Mandarin, she greatly enjoyed her time studying China's history and culture, showing that China immersions do not have to be only about the language. Maggie subsequently completed a Masters Degree at Durham University and will be beginning Medical School in 2018.

Maggie Scollan and new pengyou

Our hot noodle breakfasts still heavy in our stomachs, we dart across the street for the bus traveling southwest. The city of Beijing is already in its mid-morning bustle, and pedestrians stream by on their way to work. Doubtless most of them have never heard of where we are going, despite it being less than a two-hour journey from their homes and offices.

Reading bus schedules.

Working out the bus routes and bus changes

The idea for this adventure spawned a few weeks earlier, when our group of eleven was instructed by Dr. Clarke to peruse the library of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. The goal was to find a book to complete a report on during our month-long abroad experience in Beijing. Although much of the learning would take place in temple courtyards, corner baozi shops, and crowded hutongs, the book report would serve as a more tangible display of our academic efforts. (Whether 90% of those academic efforts took place the night before the report was due is another matter entirely).

I made my way over to a stack of archaeology and anthropology texts in the corner, an interest that would spawn into research positions and a master’s degree down the line. Judging books very much by their covers, I stumbled on Schmalzer’s The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth Century China. Despite the misnomer, I learned that Peking Man was not a celebrity Beijinger but a group of 700,000 years-old Homo erectus remains discovered in the early twentieth century. And what are the odds, in a country stretching over 9.6 million square kilometers, Peking Man resided a measly 60 kilometers from where I stood.

The horizon begins to stretch before us as we head out of the city center. The starkness of the flat open space contrasts dramatically with where we were an hour earlier, surrounded by millions in one of the most populous cities in the world. I rehash some of the facts that I’ve picked up from my reading to pass the time.

In search of primitive man, Swedish geologist Johan Andersson and American paleontologist Walter W. Granger were directed to the site in 1923. Local quarrymen had noticed strange deposits of non-native quartz in the area, and Andersson and Granger were convinced that this was a sign of ancient habitation. In the following twenty years, more than 200 human fossils from 40 individuals would be uncovered. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, excavations were left unfinished and the site sat neglected for fifty years until 1987, when UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site. Excavations picked up again in 2009, and the site continues to reveal new findings on ancient man, with discoveries past and present documented in the on-site museum.

We’re jolted to attention as the bus pulls over on the side of this seemingly road to nowhere. We hop off. A lonely shop squats on the side of the “highway,” but signs of a World Heritage Site are non-existent. Unsurprisingly, two very obvious Westerners in yellow tshirts looking lost in the middle of nowhere draws immediate attention. A friendly tuk-tuk driver pulls up to say nihao. This is when Dr. Clarke’s Mandarin comes in very handy. (Complete understatement –I can say three things in Mandarin: hello [nihao], thank you [xiexie], and I would like an iced bubble tea without the tapioca bubbles [naicha bingde buyao zhenzhu]. I would have been thoroughly stranded without my Sinophile professor.] A quick exchange results in a lift a mile or two up the street. It’s pretty obvious we made it to the right spot when we see a 3-meter tall bust of Homo erectus smiling down at us.

Dragon Bone Hill

Walking up the side of Dragon Bone Hill, the local name for the mount where Peking Man settled, we encounter the names and faces of the key players of the archaeological excavations.

Dr. Clarke enthusiastically points out the plaque of Fr. P. Tielhard de Chardin, who led the research efforts here in the mid-1920s. An avid promoter of east-west cultural exchange, Dr. Clarke finds a prime example of it in the likes of Fr. de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest who traveled the world studying and promoting his passions of philosophy and paleontology.

Dr. Clarke with Fr. P. Teilhard de Chardin’s plaque.

Teilhard de Chardin

The tree-lined entrance path gives way to an open plaza with a building in the back and another giant Peking Man head greeting its visitors. First stop, the restroom. Because as every avid China traveler knows, Why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie, and always use the loo if there is one.

Once that’s taken care of, we start our tour with an introduction in the small museum. Casts of skulls, bones, and tools are displayed in glass cases. Dr. Clarke translates inscriptions and I try to apply my basic osteology know-how. It’s a good team effort to get the most out of this exhibit. The real fun begins though when we start to walk around the grounds of Dragon Bone Hill, in search of Peking Man himself.

Casts of archaeological remains found at the site.

Following an arrow-shaped sign up some narrow stone steps, we begin to twist and turn toward the caves where most of the remains were discovered. Indeed, these caves were the home of Homo erectus pekinensis 700,000 years ago. We walk down to the opening and see a timid sign noting that the entrance of the cave is closed because of some local flooding. As it’s (usually) better to ask forgiveness than permission, we hop the rope and enter into a lofty tunnel. This opens up into a small stretch protected on all sides by steep rock faces. The scenery is dramatic, and I begin to feel the quietness and eeriness of this ancient place.

Pictures 11 & 12 – The main cave at the Peking Man site.

Caves at Peking Man site

After a bit more exploring, we leave Peking Man and his mates and manage to find the bus back to Beijing. The ride goes more quickly than this morning, but maybe it’s because I’m busy picturing what’s in my near future. In my mind, there’s an obvious way to culminate our Peking Man quest. Adventuring such as this calls for Beijing Duck - the crispiest, fattiest, most delicious thing on earth (just my opinion).

A local spot serves up the duck with all its trimmings. Not-so-delicately picking at pieces of sliced duck with my chopsticks, I load up my thin pancakes with scallions, cucumber, duck, and sweet bean sauce. It all gets washed down with a refreshing cold glass of Tsingtao. Cheers Peking Man.

Back at the Beijing Center, I walk in to find the others working (note: scrambling) on their book reports, which happen to be due in the morning. I admit, I did not exactly finish my reading either. Schmalzer’s work on Peking Man is sitting on my table, definitely less than done. I’m not too worried though. After today, I’m pretty sure that I can find something to muse about tomorrow.

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