Dragon Bone Hill (2004) is a fascinating book about “Peking Man,” a large collection of Homo erectus fossils found in a cave near Beijing, China dated to have lived there between 670,000 to 410,000 years ago. To those who follow the popular literature on human evolution, this book takes the Hobbesian view that pre-human life was “nasty, brutish, and short” and that the natural state of mankind is a “warre of every [group of] man against every [group of] man” (Leviathan-1651),
The authors, paleoanthropologists Noel Boaz and Russell Chiochon, paint a picture of the harshness of their lives, co-habitating in caves with huge hyenas. Note the picture of the fossil of one of these horrible hyenas crunching into a fossil of a hominid skull in which the teeth exactly fit into the bite marks. The hero of the book is an emmanent anatomist-anthropologist, Franz Weidenreich, who was (he died in 1948) a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany (so had every right to hold a dim view of human nature).
He noted that the skulls of these Homo erectus fossils were thicker than those of either earlier hominids or humans. Paying lip service to the variety of reasons for a thick skull, he created considerable controversy by proclaiming that it was mainly an adaptation to pre-human inter-group violence, better known as war.
He envisioned thousands of generations of Homo erectus engaging in continual group warfare, constantly clubbing each other to death causing only those with progressively thicker skulls to survive. His proof consists of ten fossils of skulls from China which he claimed had sustained depressed skull fractures – which also show signs of healing indicating they were alive when they received the injuries.
However, his claims were met with skepticism and the discussion is no longer actively pursued having been reignited in this extremely interesting book. In 1969, Marilyn Keyes Roper wrote a review article on the entire subject entitled “Survey of the Evidence for Intrahuman Killing in the Pleistocene.” In the article she quotes Weidenreich tempering his claims that his fossils show signs of violence: [stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Partial disclaimer” color=”000000″ bcolor=”d2b48c” bgcolor=”f5f5f5″ image=”null”]“All the Pithecanthropine material came from volcanic deposits and was transported by mud streams together with pebbles and boulders to the site where it was recovered. The crushing (when the soft parts surrounded the bones) may therefore be the con-sequence of elemental accidents rather than of the incidental actions of man.” [/stextbox]In the end, after exhaustively reviewing multiple sources of depressed fractures in Homo erectus, Roper concludes the evidence is “inconclusive.” There is no acknowledgement by any author as to how crucial all of this is for one’s view of human nature. I intend to scour Roper’s lengthy article (& review Weidenreich’s work) and report on it in another post. There is no doubt in my mind that Weidenreich’s conclusions fit right into Boaz & Russell’s preexisting cynical beliefs about what constitutes our nature.
Anyone reading this blog knows that I am more Rousseau than Hobbes. I can believe that the thickened skulls of H. erectus were adaptive to protecting their precious, newly evolved over-sized brains during a period when their lives were harsh beyond imagination from injuries from many sources other than beating each other over the head with clubs, but I will read these papers with and open mind. The Myth in this blog does not ignore facts.
Roper also presents evidence from ancient cave paintings of war in early humans, with which I have no problem. In this blog, our own Homo sapiens species has been consigned to a “fallen” status. Nevertheless, I agree with Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that our violence is gradually receding and I have no doubt that this trend is destined to continue – because that really is our nature.
An element to the story of Dragon Bone Hill that is particularly intriguing is a counterpoint to Weidenreich – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and a Jesuit priest (1881-1955) who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and whose contribution to the understanding of Peking Man is characterized by authors Boaz and Chiochon as a “remarkable feat of reasoning.” In his later writing, Teilhard conceived of the idea of the Omega Point – a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving. Next post.