Memories of Peking Man at the American Museum of Natural History

Jon and I outside The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia of Drexel University, PA (photo by Don Frack).

While looking through some old photographs, for something else I am working on, I came across some snap shots I took back in 1998 when my friend Don Frack and myself flew back to the East coast to attend the DinoFest 98 symposium (a combination dinosaur fossil exhibition and gathering of dinosaur paleontologists) in Philadelphia, PA.

We figured that to make going really worth our while (and our money), we would make a couple of side trips. We planned to arrive a couple days early, rent a car and drive up to New York for a day and go to the American Museum of Natural History (we were joined on this leg of our journey by our friend Jonathan Woolf who we knew from back in the CompuServe forum CvE debates). We would then

A Triceratops skull and myself at The Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia, PA (photo by Jon Wolff).

A Triceratops skull and myself at The Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia, PA (photo by Jon Woolf).

return to Philadelphia and attend the three day symposium, after which Don and I would drive down to Washington D.C., go to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and fly home from there.

It was at once a fun, fascinating and frustrating trip, which I won’t get too much into now. Let’s just say the both of us a life-long Californians experienced a combination of a bit of culture and geography shock.

Anyway, since we were going to go to the American Museum, Don thought he might contact a couple of the scientists who worked there to see if we could go behind the scenes and get a closer look at some of the material in their collection. In this case material that is of particular interest to those of us involved in the creation/evolution debate, namely their casts of the original “Peking Man” (a.k.a. Sinanthropus pekinensis but now recognized as Homo erectus) material. The fossils represented a number of individual H. erectus‘, unearthed in China at a site known as Zhoukoudian (or Choukoutien) near Beijing in the late 1920’s and early 30’s.

The reason the Peking Man casts are so interesting is that creationists had long argued, through innuendo and implication, that the scientific mainstream’s characterization of Peking Man as a human ancestor was somehow fraudulent and that the original fossils found in China were actually those of some form of non-human ape or large monkey (Gish 1995).*

They were able to cast such aspersions because all of the original Peking Man fossil material (more was found later) was lost in the early days of World War II, when the Japanese were invading China, which of course means that the only evidence of Peking Man left to the world were casts made by deceitful evil-utionist scientists…

…and detailed descriptions, measurements and photographs (in both visible light and X-rays). Then there was the additional H. erectus material found at the same site, but who cares about the facts?   In any case, it is a fascinating story, and I will link to some articles on the interwebs and provide a couple references at the bottom of the page for anyone interested in looking into more deeply into it.

So, the paleoanthropologist in charge of the material (unfortunately I can’t recall his name) agreed to allow us to examine and photograph the Peking Man casts (and a few other surprises).

Unfortunately at the time I had only basic fixed focus/view finder camera with which to take snap-shots (this was before the days of cheap and easy digital), so I only have a handful of pictures of our trip in my possession. Don is the real photographer and I don’t know how many rolls of 35mm he burned on the trip. I am going to have to bug him about maybe getting copies of  some of those someday (at least if there are any with me in them)!  [Are you reading this Don?]

OK, without further adieu, my pics, such as they are:

The side (?) entrance of the American Museum.

The side (?) entrance (exit?) of the American Museum.

 This is actually were we exited the museum. We entered through the main entrance across the street from Central Park.

Looking out one of the AMNH windows onto Central Park.

Looking out one of the AMNH windows onto Central Park.

The city was socked in with fog all day and into the evening when we left, so despite having being to middle of Manhattan I never really saw any of its sky scrapers. All the taller buildings just disappeared into the low hanging clouds after about ten stories. I think we even drove right by the World Trade Center on our way out but never saw it.

My friend Jon Wolff and Don Frack waiting to see some of the material at the AMNH.

My friends Jon Woolf (left) and Don Frack (right) waiting to see some of the material at the AMNH.

Now that I think of it, this shot was actually in the mammalian paleontology collection (not paleoanthropology), where we saw one fossil tooth. I will get back to that later.

Don, doing what Don does, taking lots of pictures in this case of casts of the Peking Man fossils.

Don, doing what Don does, taking lots of pictures, in this case of casts of the Peking Man fossils.

Jon with several drawers of casts.

Jon with several drawers of casts.

One of the drawers containing casts of the Peking Man material.

One of the drawers containing casts of the Peking Man material.

These casts really are something to behold. They have a beautiful finish to them, including the Chinese writing from the 1930’s, and by knowledgeable accounts are very good representations of the original material. (Tattersall & Sawyer, 1996)

Two reconstructions of Peking Man, old and new.

Two reconstructions of Peking Man, old and new.

The reconstructed skull on the left is the one produced by Franz Weidenreich and Lucille Swan back in 1937. Weidenreich took over the management of the Peking Man fossils (and fossil site) after their original describer, Davidson Black, died suddenly in 1934. The newer reconstruction on the right is by G. J. Sawyer and Ian Tattersall. Both reconstructions are composites that include material from multiple individuals (Tattersall & Sawyer, 1996).

Come to think of it, maybe it was Tattersall who let us look at the material. [Don?]

They are still nowhere near a monkey, something that anyone who had bothered to compare them to other known fossils of H. erectus would be able to discern easily. Creationists, apparently, didn’t bother (at least not until recently*). If they had the worst they could have argued, with regards to the Peking Man casts, was that they represented examples of fraudulent H. erectus fossils; and where would the sense be in that?

Another bit of fun that happened while we were checking out the Peking Man casts was when one of out hosts offered to bring out the AMNH cast of the infamous Eoanthropus dawsoni, a.k.a: “Piltdown Man“.

A cast of the

A cast of the “Piltdown Man” material in the collection of the AMNH.

The fraudulent Piltdown Man material was “discovered” (or likely created) by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson in 1912, was actually part of a modern human skull and the lower jaw of an orangutan, colored and otherwise modified to appear as if it might belong to a pre-human species. It was uncovered as a fraud in the 1950’s and has been used as a weapon by creationists ever since to try and cast doubt on pretty much all fossil material belonging to human ancestors.

This brings us back to the third picture above (the one with Jon and Don in it), that was taken in the fossil mammal dept., where we were waiting to see a fossil peccary tooth. However this was no ordinary peccary tooth, this was the peccary tooth that was infamously misidentified by paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn as a primate tooth and popularly called “Nebraska Man“.

The infamous

My blurry P.O.S. picture of the infamous “Nebraska Man” took in the collection of the AMNH.

The

The “Nebraska Man” tooth from Gregory & Hellman (1923).

Found in Nebraska by Harold Cook (rancher/geologist) in 1917, the tooth was dubbed Hesperopithecus haroldcookii (the generic name literally means “Western-ape”), after its discoverer, in 1922 by Osborn who thought it might belong to a primate. The mistake was corrected in 1927 when a retraction was printed in the journal Science announcing that the tooth probably belonged to a peccary (a type of pig) rather than a primate (Gregory, 1927).

This was a simple mistake to make considering the similarities be some peccary teeth and those of some primates , especially when the fossil tooth in question was significantly worn. An easy mistake that, once corrected, might have been forgotten if not for the fact that its discovery made it into the popular press especially in the form of this reconstruction published in the Illustrated London News:

Like the “Piltdown Man” fraud, the “Nebraska Man” mistake has been used by countless creationists since (and almost always illustrated by this one picture) to try and discredit all paleoanthropological finds.

Ever since our trip to the American Museum I have been able to say that I have held the Nebraska Man tooth in my own hands and examined it personally.

Ah, memories…

So anyway, this wasn’t meant as some new devastating critique of creationist arguments, this stuff has already been long and ably refuted (see links below), so I won’t be submitting it to my new Patreon account but I figured some might find the pics and my story interesting.

Notes

* After many decades of most prominent creationists arguing that many of the famous examples of Homo erectus were the remains of either large gibbons (“Java Man”) or monkeys (“Peking Man”), in the 1990’s some creationists switched to arguing that these and other H. erectus fossils were really just the remains of Homo sapiens variants (Lubenow, 1992)(Mehlert 1994). So depending on which creationist you ask H. erectus is either just a monkey/ape, or it is just a variation of a modern human. The one thing they all do seem to agree on is that H. erectus is not an intermediate form between earlier hominins and modern humans.  

Related links

Suggested Reading

Aczel, Amir (2007) The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man, Riverhead Books

Boaz, Noel Thomas & Ciochon, Russell L. (2004) Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age saga of Homo erectus, Oxford University Press, New York, NY

Jia, Lanpo (1975) The Cave Home of Peking Man, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, China

Jia, Lanpo & Huang, Weiwen (1990) The Story of Peking Man: From archaeology to mystery, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China / Oxford University Press, New York, NY

Shapiro, Harry L. (1974) Peking Man: The discovery, disappearance and mystery of a priceless scientific treasure, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY

Oosterzee, Penny van (2000) Dragon Bones: The story of Peking man, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1965) The Appearance of Man, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY

Weidenreich, Franz (1943) “The Skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis: A comparative study on a primitive hominid skull“, Palaeontologta Sinica, New Series D, 10:1–485

References

Gish, Duane T. (1995) Evolution: The fossils still say no!, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA

Gregory William K. (1927) “Hesperopithecus apparently not an ape nor a man“, Science, 66:579-81.

Gregory, William K. & Hellman, Milo (1923) “Notes on the Type of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii Osborn”, American Museum Novitates, 53:1-16

Lubenow, Marvin L. (1992) Bones of contention: A creationist assessment of human fossils, Baker Books

Mehlert, A.W. (1994) “Homo erectus ‘to’ modern man: evolution or variability?“, Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, 8(1):105-16

Tattersall, Ian & Sawyer, G. J. (1996) “The skull of ‘‘Sinanthropus’’ from Zhoukoudian, China: a new reconstruction”, Journal of Human Evolution 31:311–314

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One thought on “Memories of Peking Man at the American Museum of Natural History

  1. In a minor coincidence, I was shuffling through the electronic pile of paper of paper last night and wondered why I’d got a batch of papers from the Jnl.Geol.Soc.London dating back to the 1910s – it was Piltdown stuff. (And most of the papers from those same numbers ; no point getting one without the rest of the edition.)
    Say ‘hi’ to Jon.

    Like

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