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Science: Old Men

3 minute read

The two most ancient fossil humans known are Sinanthropus pekinensis, the old man of China, and Pithecanthropus erectus, the ape man of Java. Their ages have been variously put at 400,000 to 1,000,000 years. First Pithecanthropus relics were found in Java by a Dutchman, Eugene Dubois, in 1892. First good Sinanthropus specimen was discovered in the Choukoutien caves near Peking by W. C. Pei in 1929.

The late Dr. Davidson Black, who was in charge of the Choukoutien site when the Sinanthropus find was made, noticed how much the skull resembled that of the Java Man. But for a long time the Dubois find remained the only known Pithecanthropus skull, and comparisons seemed dangerous on the basis of single samples. Subsequently, one Sinanthropus find after another was made at Choukoutien, and the old Peking Man’s anatomy came to be fairly well known. Though definitely human, he was generally regarded as somewhat older than Pithecanthropus. This apparently irked Dr. Dubois. He dated his Pithecanthropus back into the Pliocene Age (making him considerably more than a million years old) and kept him out of the human family altogether, relating him to the gibbons.

The man now in charge of the Choukoutien site (where digging has been seriously interfered with by the Sino-Japanese war) is an expatriate German Jew, Dr. Franz Weidenreich of Rockefeller-endowed Peiping Union Medical College. No. 1 man in Java is an expatriate German Gentile, Dr. Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald, research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Of late these earnest anthropologists have shown an increasing interest in each other’s doings, and have tended to ignore the heterodox mutterings of old Dr. Dubois.

In 1937 Koenigswald found a second Pithecanthropus skull in Java, resembling the Dubois skull “as closely as one egg another.” He discovered a third in 1938, a fourth in 1939, including the first good piece of an upper jawbone. Now that several good specimens of each ancient type were available, Weidenreich and Koenigswald got together and wrote a joint article for the British journal Nature, which last week reached the eager hands of U. S. anthropologists.

The two scientists found some differences in the Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus skull shapes, but also some exact resemblances, even in minor structural details. Peking Man’s molar and premolar teeth are more primitive, but Java Man has a wide gap between his canines and incisors—an extremely apelike feature never before found in a human or nearly human creature. On the whole, the resemblances between Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus led their analysts to regard them as “related to each other in the same way as two different races of present mankind, which may also display certain variations in the degree of their advancement.”

Koenigswald and Weidenreich agree that the Java “ape man” as well as the Peking man is definitely human, and that the Peking Man specimens are probably older chronologically (from geological evidence). It remains uncertain which of the two is the more primitive from the point of view of evolution. That question may be answered if, on some happy day, anthropologists stumble on a common Pliocene Age ancestor of China’s and Java’s Old Men.

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