Monday, May 2, 2011

Did Peking Man wield a spear? New research suggests early humans were assembling weapons in China 700,000 years ago

Never underestimate Peking Man.
About 700,000 years ago, at a time when China’s climate was chillier than it is today, a group of Homo erectus lived in a cave system in Zhoukoudian China.
They had a striking appearance. With a heavy brow ridge, large robust teeth and a brain size approaching our own, these people had long since left Africa, their ancestors travelling thousands of kilometres into East Asia.
Until recently scientists believed that they lived in more recent times, perhaps only 500,000 years ago. That idea was repudiated two years ago in the journal Nature, when a team of scientists used aluminum/beryllium dating to show that Peking Man was about 700,000 years old.
When researchers arrived at that date it left them with a mystery.
"There is evidence that Homo erectus had physically adapted to the cold, but they probably also had to be doing something in terms of behaviour to handle the cold of a glacial period in northern China,” said Professor Susan Antón, of New York University.
Today, thanks to new lab research, we have an idea as to what some of this behaviour may have been.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Chen Shen, of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, have been re-examining the tools that Peking Man used. Subjecting them to close microscopic examination the researchers have found that this group of Homo erectus was smarter than we give them credit for.
“The new study suggests that Peking Man lithic technology was not simple as previously thought,” writes Dr. Shen in the abstract of a paper presented at a recent Society for American Archaeology conference. “The micro-wear evidence indicates many typed tools were made for specific tasks related to processing animal substances.”
That’s not all. Peking Man didn’t just know how to butcher animals, he also knew the best way to hunt them – with the business end of a stone pointed spear.
“Importantly, most pointed tools were probably hafted, and this provides arguably the earliest evidence for the composition tools in the Chinese Middle Pleistocene,” writes Shen.
But if this is the case how exactly did they haft (assemble) these weapons? Did Peking Man use sinew or some sort of sticky liquid?
Unfortunately we’re going to have to wait a little bit for the answer.
In an email Dr. Shen said that he is in China right now, continuing his research. He and his team are in the process of getting their findings published in a scientific journal and, once that process is complete, will be able to grant media interviews.
So until then we are left with an enticing possibility. Perhaps Homo erectus adapted to a cold climate in much the same way Homo sapiens (modern humans) did – by crafting spears to hunt animals and tools capable of efficiently butchering them.

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