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Why Peking Man crafts were so poor remains a big question. Wei said that some patterning on their tools suggested they might be an offshoot of the Nihewanians that was driven out and settled in Zhoukoudian – now a World Heritage Site – about 200km (124 miles) away.
In that isolated environment, Peking Man might have interbred over many generations, Wei said.
This increases the chances of offspring being born with so-called deleterious traits such as inherited conditions and illnesses that affect quality of life and the ability to adapt and survive.
Evidence of cannibalism has been found by scientists studying the remains of ancient humans throughout the globe, including early Homo sapiens specimens.
A skull of Xuchang man was discovered in 2007 and prompted great interest. It was hailed by some scientists as the greatest discovery in China since the Peking man and Upper cave man skull fossils were found in Beijing early last century, because the appearance of Xuchang man filled a missing gap in the evolution history of humans in China.
The Peking man is believed to have lived between 250 to 500 thousand years ago, but the fossil record of the progression from this ancient ancestor to modern humans had remained very much blank before the discovery of the Xuchang man.
At the time, the Peking Man remains were the oldest known fossils belonging to human ancestors. Their discovery in the 1920s and 30s caused a sensation, triggering declarations that the cradle of humanity had been found. But just a few decades later, all eyes had turned to Africa. A slew of discoveries there left little doubt that it was our true ancestral home. As far as human evolution was concerned, Asia was out of the picture.
As recently as July 11, scientists announced that newly discovered stone tools suggest some unidentified relative of humans lived in China as long as 2.1 million years ago – more than 200,000 years earlier than the previous record for such a presence outside Africa.
Today, Peking Man is recognised as a late representative that lived 700,000 years ago. While nobody disputes that several human species populated Eurasia very early on, the textbook version sees them as evolutionary dead ends. Our own species, the story goes, descends directly from African Homo erectus and only emerged from the continent some 60,000 years ago, at which point it swept across the globe, replacing all other hominin species.
That, until very recently, was the accepted story. There were details to fill out, but the plot and main characters were clear. As fossils trickled out of Asia, drawing far less attention in the West than African fossils did, they were often dismissed because they contradicted the dominant narrative.