Tooth from prehistoric woman reveals life and times of Peking Man
A single tooth from a rare and important shipment of fossil finds – forgotten for decades in an unopened box in museum storage – has been rediscovered, and it is giving experts new knowledge about Peking Man, considered an ancient ancestor of modern humans.
The tooth has a strange, globe-trotting history that reaches back 500,000 years, to the time of Peking Man. Peking Man ( Sinanthropus pekinensis) was not a single individual, but a species of Homo erectus who were very similar to modern humans, having a large brain, and similar skull and bone sizes, but who had heavy brows and large, chinless jaws. They lived between 750,000 and 200,000 years ago.
In a press release from Uppsala University, Professor Per Ahlberg says “It is a spectacular find. We can see numerous details that tell us about this individual's life. The crown of the tooth is relatively small, which indicates that it belonged to a woman. The tooth is quite worn, so the individual must have been quite old when she died. In addition, two large chips have been knocked out of the enamel, as if hit by something, or perhaps by biting into something really hard such as a bone or a hard nut. At least one of the chips was old when the individual died, since it is partly worn down.”
Tooth from Homo Erectus, “Peking Man” found at the Museum of Evolution, Uppsala University. Credit: Uppsala University
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Described as “quite old,” Mail Online reports the female was “between 30 and 40 years old when she died,” which was quite aged at the time. Other research on the species suggest Peking Man used fire and animal hides for warmth.
According to science news site Phys.org, after finding the tooth in 2011 in a collection of boxes at the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University, Sweden, scientists were able to identify it as part of a long-lost cache of fossils from Zhoukoudia, China, and examined it using modern techniques.
A reconstructed Zhoukoudian skull (A) and endocast (B: superior view; C: left lateral view; D: anterior view; E: posterior view). Public Domain
The tooth, partial skulls, and many other ancient fossils and tools were excavated from a site at Zhoukoudian, China in the 1920’s. Discovered by Swedish geologist and archaeologist Johann Gunnar Andersson, the prehistoric bones caused a sensation in the scientific world, and were shipped from China to Sweden for further examination. The collection was huge and some of the boxes were never opened until now. Other specimens were smuggled out of China and others were lost in the confusion and chaos of the Second World War. Although the tooth was rediscovered almost 100 years later, the whereabouts of many important bones remain unknown.
Ahlberg laments, “We now know that the species is a direct ancestor to the modern man. However, the lost materials of the Peking Man remain one of palaeontology's greatest mysteries and most tragic losses.”
The Peking Man site at Zhoukoudia, near Beijing, is named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Examination findings on the prehistoric woman’s tooth have recently been published in scientific journal Acta Anthropologica Sinica from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP).
Reconstructed skull of Peking man, based on specimens found at Zhoukoudian, China, and dated to approximately 230,000–770,000 years ago. Credit: Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
The East Asian fossils of the Peking Man hominids can tell researchers much about evolution and give us insights into prehistoric human societies.
Featured Image: Forensic facial reconstruction of Homo erectus pekinensis, commonly known at Peking Man. Cicero Moraes/Wikimedia Commons
By Liz Leafloor