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Books: Hominid Saga Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Of all the colorful characters to have populated the human family tree, Homo erectus was by far the most peripatetic and long-lived. Represented by the fossilized remains of some 200 individuals scattered over three continents and living from more than 1.7 million to 50,000 years ago, H. erectus was the first to harness fire, a maker of crude yet effective stone tools, and perhaps the first seafarer.

In Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice Age Saga of Homo erectus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; $30), anthropologists Noel Boaz and Russell Ciochon chronicle the evolutionary career of H. erectus through the study of a collection of bones that came to light in the 1920s and 1930s at Longgushan, or Dragon Bone Hill, a cave some 30 miles southwest of Beijing. Known popularly as Peking Man, the skeletal remains revolutionized our notions of early hominid anatomy.

Dragon Bone Hill

In telling their tale, the authors delve into the professional rivalries, larger-than-life egos, and institutional jockeying for excavation concessions that dominated early paleoanthropology in China--all set against the ensuing turbulence of the Sino-Japanese war. The Longgushan fossils were among the casualties of the war; their fate is unknown to this day.

Despite the absence of the original remains, finds from the cave have continued to shape our understanding of H. erectus' behavior. While many regard the species as an innovator that pioneered cooperative big-game hunting, H. erectus, it seems, was a scavenger and opportunist, and was apt to settle disputes by "going a few rounds." It is this latter trait, the authors suggest, that best explains an anatomical detail peculiar to H. erectus, and which sets it apart from others in the family tree--pachyostosis. In common language, this means that H. erectus was thick-headed, his overengineered skull reinforced about the eyes, jaw, and nape--well suited, say the authors, to withstand blows to the head inflicted by fellow hominids or other creatures.

It's clear that H. erectus--which intermittently occupied the Longgushan cave between 670,000 and 400,000 years ago--endured a brutal existence. Of the 50 men, women, and children represented by bones found at the cave, most had fallen prey to giant hyenas, their bodies ripped apart and devoured face first.

Bones from the cave also bear ample evidence for cannibalism. It is likely, the authors say, that victims of cannibalization may simply have been among the prey downed by hyenas and later scavenged by humans living at the very edge of survival. According to Boaz and Ciochon, this pattern of thriving on seconds is underscored by evidence at the cave for the controlled use of fire, which they say was not used for warmth, cooking, or communal bond-building, as previously thought, but as a means to drive predators away from their kill so it could be scavenged.

Poetically written in layman's terms, Dragon Bone Hill is a far cry from the usual bone-dry fodder offered by university presses.

Angela M.H. Schuster is the editor-in-chief of ICON, the preservation quarterly of the World Monuments Fund.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America