The sight of my gurning face on Right Stuf’s podcast, backed by multiple images of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis made me laugh. Not because of my freakish appearance, but because I knew where that photograph of me was originally taken: at the cave complex in Zhoukoudian, China, at the site where archaeologists first discovered Peking Man. It’s a long way from anime; it’s a long way from anything.
A path winds away from the low, unobtrusive museum around the hilltop itself, where cavemen spent thousands of years looking down on the valley below. A single glance is not enough to appreciate its full impact. It is not the cave that is impressive, but the fact that primitive man lived here for thousands of years. This bare cavern could be the very place where fire was first kindled; where the first words were spoken, where the first art was created in China. Like the Great Wall, it is not so much the sight itself that is humbling; it is the knowledge of how far it extends beyond view, out past the horizon, across the mountains and far back into time.
Time, not mere hours and days, but geological time, has changed this environment. A once-great river, where Peking Man fished and paddled, has shifted hundreds of miles to the south. Many of the caves have been carefully torn apart in the interests of science, and are only now being restored to their previous state. But which previous? Here there was once a soaring, vaulted hall of shadows, the limestone walls sweating with spring water, a place used by generation upon generation of animals in search of a safe den. Millennia later, it was a split-level caveman apartment, its lower reaches used for burials and refuse.
Standing at the lowest point of the Zhoukoudian excavations, you gaze upward at a towering rock face, layers marked with occasional numbers. What was once a great cavernous fissure, as high as a football pitch is long, has slowly filled up over the centuries. At its lowest level, there is nothing save scattered lumps of ancient hyena faeces, scuffed and ground into the rock. But after thousands of years of occasional hyena habitation, the cave gains a new coating of red silt, as if new rains have washed mud from a new river somewhere nearby. Amidst the sandy clay are pieces of human fossil, animal bones and pieces of stone worked into scrapers and primitive axes.
Five hundred thousand years ago, Peking Man had arrived. The area was a lush, secluded valley, rich in game and plants. Peking Man hid from leopards, sabre-toothed tigers and bears, in an environment that was a home to porcupines, woolly rhinoceros and gazelles. He hunted these animals, luring them into a cave with a sudden vertical drop where he could finish them off at his leisure, cooking their carcasses on the first fires, scraping their skins to make the first rudimentary clothes. ‘Suddenly’, if there can be a suddenly in geological time, Peking Man lost his furry covering and become a naked ape in need of animal skins to keep out the cold. He had become Upper Cave Man – Homo sapiens. Us.
Some have been harsh about Peking Man’s culture. He has been accused of being a scavenger, not a hunter. His rudimentary, ‘chopping’ stone tools have been unfavourably compared with the ‘axes’ of his European cousins, although recent research has suggested that the easy availability of bamboo in China probably led to much more sophisticated tools that rotted away many centuries ago.
It has been suggested that he did not master fire quite as early as some believed. 40% of the human remains at Zhoukoudian are those of children under 14 years of age. Only 2.6% made it to fifty. His living arrangements have been ridiculed by modern observers who note not the fact of his survival, but the seemingly endless centuries in which so little changed, and early man huddled in the drafty, smoky gloom, chewing on the dirty, half-burnt, half-raw carcasses of bats.
One day, the sky fell in. The roof collapsed, leaving half the former cave open to the sky. The tribe of Peking Man relocated to the caves which still offered some protection from the outside world. He lived there for another eleven thousand years.
(from Beijing: The Biography of a City, by Jonathan Clements. The History Press, 2008)
Half a million years may be as the blinking of an eye in the great evolutionary sheme of things, but it is as inconceivable to us, who are fortunate to live a century, as the passage of a year must be to the mayfly that lives for a single day. Zhoukoudian is an awesome place, because it may be where we first became fully human, where the miraculous transformation took place that changed us from dumb brutes into conscious beings with culture, language, technology. Very few people ever pause to consider just what a momentous thing it is to possess language, literature, music, art, science and perhaps most significant of all, compassion. In an age where it is all too common to hear people express the view that human beings are, when all is said and done, ‘just another animal’, it is salutary to reflect on the enormous gulf that separates us from all other creatures on this planet. Perhaps we do not care to acknowledge this difference, because of the heavy responsibility placed upon us; the duty of care that it implies.