Saturday 5 January 2013

It's Like a New Year Gift From the Archaeology Gods: A New Peek at Peking Man Reveals Heretofore Unknown Sartorial Pursuits [or not]

As you know, I do not make fun of people. I make fun of their inferences. But even I couldn't have predicted that there'd be so many to poke fun at, and that they'd be so various, and that I'd have such a splendid canvas on which to work. 

Locality 1 at Zhoukoudian. Note that this is no Lilliputian fence, nor was this a Lilliputian excavation.  The many, many metres of deposits visible in this illustration mean that this site was seriously mined in the early years.
The US media giant NBC announced on New Year's Eve that Sinanthropus pekinensis syn. Homo erectus keeps on surprising, almost 100 years after its remains were recovered by, among others, Davidson Black and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. [I promise I won't say anything about the latter's involvement in the discovery of Eoanthropus dawsoni...that just wouldn't be fair.] It appears that excavations have recently begun again at the eponymous Peking Man site of Dragon Bone Hill [Zhoukoudian] near Beijing.

Although this tourist map fails to give any idea of the scale, consider that Beijing is a sprawling metropolis along the lines of London or Los Angeles. Thus, the Sinanthropus pekinensis site indicated in the lower left would be about 50 km from the outskirts of the big city.
The NBC News headline reads:
Scientists say 'Peking Man' was more stylish than they thought: Fresh analysis suggests that human ancestor made clothes ... and stone drills? 
[I swear2gawd--I didn't put the question mark in that title! And don't forget that whenever a question mark appears in the title of anything the likely answer is "Not."]

You already know that I find such claims laughable on their face, given the 'scholarship' that surrounds most such archaeological 'knowledge,' and the proclivity of most media mavens to exaggerate beyond credulity anything that sounds keel and has to do with our 'origins.' Therefore, in the interest of scholarly integrity and all that fluff, I'll do what I can to get my hands on the original findings and see what the latest team has to say. I'm not holding my breath anticipating a solidly supported revelation.

In the meantime, you should probably be reminded that, from the beginning, Peking Man was thought to have used fire--as much as 700,000 years ago [sound familiar?]. Lew Binford tried to put the kibosh on that myth back in the 80s. Likewise that this fossil relation was a hunter. So, it's not as if the present excavators--Chinese nationals, all--have any axes to grind, Chauvinist-inspired reputations to uphold, ancestral archaeologists to revere, or careers to be made. [!] In that regard, the cognocenti among you will no doubt glibly point out that regardless of what underpins their new old findings, one axe they couldn't grind would be a 'hand' axe. That's 'cause Zhoukoudian is on the eastern side of the so-called Movius line, which delineates the easternmost extent of anything approaching a hand axe in the palaeolithic record [and we all know how weak the rocks on the eastern side must be if decades of archaeologists couldn't find a good hand axe amongst all the bifacially flaked pieces thus far recovered. [If I knew the antithesis to the oft-used phrase "And that's going some," I'd want to use it in this context.]

So, by now you've realized that I have nothing new to add to this new Peking Man story, and that you'll have to wait as long as it takes for us all to be shown the physical discoveries that brought these old chestnuts [or was that cherry pits?] back into the spotlight. With that in mind, and by your leave, I'll be going now.

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