The Peking Man, arguably one of the most renowned fossil discoveries in the history of paleoanthropology, clearly revolutionised – or brought about new arguments to – the theory of human evolution.
KL’s Muzium Negara is hosting The Peking Man: Zhoukoudian Heritage Site exhibition, a South-East Asian first, giving Malaysians a chance to view pre-historic bones discovered in an early stage of human evolution.
This touring exhibit, showcasing the history of the earliest humans in Asia, is a collaboration between the Department of Museums Malaysia (DMM) and the Zhoukoudian Site Museum.
“The Peking Man exhibit is a condensed show, a sampling of the exhibits found in Zhoukoudian. It gives people an opportunity to find out more about this historic discovery, the stories behind the fossils unearthed and the evolutionary interpretation of the Zhoukoudian hominin materials,” says Dong Cuiping, Zhoukoudian Site Museum director, at the recent launch of the exhibition in Muzium Negara.
The exhibition, which ends on June 16, is one of Muzium Negara’s highlights this year. It features 117 exhibits, a mixture of real fossils and replicas. This assemblage of partial craniums, lower jaws, many teeth, some skeletal bones and large numbers of stone tools were discovered in 1918 at the Zhoukoudian caves near Beijing, in China.
The Peking Man remains (at least 40 hominids) proved that this early human ancestor was able to make and handle tools, hunt large mammals and even had funeral rites. They also set up fireplaces and cooked food, the earliest evidence for fire use by a human species yet.
The ongoing excavations and scientific work at the Zhoukoudian Site – also a Unesco World Heritage Site – are thus of significant value in the history of world archaeology, and have played an important role in the world history of science.
Not too far from the excavation site (also known as Dragon Bone Hill) is the Zhoukoudian Site Museum, a natural history museum in China, which houses these findings.
“This show allows Malaysians to get an understanding of the Zhoukoudian Site, be it via paleoanthropology, quaternary geology or even paleontology,” says Datuk Kamarul Baharin, the director general of DMM.
“We also hope that this would be a platform to share and trade knowledge, especially also in the field of historical research, archaeology and the preservation of heritage sites,” he adds.
In 2015, the DMM also hosted two other China-based exhibitions – The Treasures From The Summer Palace and Blue And White Porcelain In Late Yuan And Early Ming Dynasties Maritime.
Kiew Yeng Meng, the senior curator at the DMM’s Division of Collection Management adds that this exhibition is particularly important as it develops the larger narrative of human evolution, especially when compared with the human remains discovered in Sarawak’s Niah Caves (which date back to 40,000 years ago) and the Perak Man, unearthed in the Lenggong Valley, Ulu Perak, which dates back to 10,000 years ago.
The Peking Man exhibition, held at Muzium Negara’s Gallery 1, is divided into three sections – Ancient Humans, Fossil Localities and Protection.
When you walk into the gallery, be prepared to be greeted by a replica of the Peking Man, arguably the star of the exhibition.
You might be wondering why is there a bust instead of an actual fossil of the Peking Man.
In fact, you will discover as you walk through the exhibition that a quarter of the exhibits are replicas.
As the backstory goes, the Zhoukoudian caves, regarded to be the most intact Homo erectus dwelling in the world, opened in 1921. The first Homo erectus remains were uncovered in 1929. However, the majority of the Zhoukoudian fossils unearthed before 1937 were lost during WWII.
As a result, most of the studies and discussions about the Peking Man, in the last 80 years, have been based on casts and on the descriptions and drawings made by German anthropologist Franz Weidenreich in the 1930 s and 1940s.
This story of lost skulls and the search for them is an ongoing one.
At Muzium Negara, be prepared to see a parade of skulls. If you have ever wondered what sets the Peking Man and modern humans apart, there is a side- by-side comparison of skulls. The Peking Man spots a small forehead, a flat profile and an almost chinless jaw.
The exhibition also includes hearths, ash deposits and burnt bones on display, pointing to the use of fire by these prehistoric humans.
In the second part of the exhibition, human remains give way to ancient animal fossils.
These exhibits were excavated from Locality 13 in the Zhoukoudian Site. The animal remains unearthed include the thick-jawed deer, saber-toothed tiger, horses, rhinos and other kinds of mammals.
Lastly, the third section is not necessarily a display of exhibits. Rather it chronicles the preservation and conservation efforts at the Zhoukoudian Site. Without such concerted efforts, a huge part of human history, specifically ancient Asian human history, could be lost.
This exhibition also marks the 44th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China.