Friday, March 27, 2009

Homo erectus would have done fine in New England winters

It is a nice day today - so I should not complain (too much) about this past winter. However, it seems that Homo erectus survived a glacial period about 750,000 years ago - and I guess they would have been fine in New England winters too. This information is coming from the new dating of bones and tools found in the Peking Man cave in China. This is also cool as I'm currently reading The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, evolution, and the search for Peking Man about the discovery of Peking Man in the 1920s (I haven't finished it yet - so don't tell me if they actually find fossils or not). From Science (March 13, 2009):
Ever since a Canadian anatomist discovered the skullcap of "Peking Man" by candlelight in China's Zhoukoudian Cave in 1929, the cave has been known as the richest Homo erectus site in the world. Just 50 kilometers southwest of Beijing, the cave was the resting place for more than 40 individuals dragged there by predators. But with no volcanic sediments for traditional radiometric dating, researchers have not known precisely when early humans lived near the cave. Now, Chinese and American researchers have redated bones and tools from the site with a new radiometric method.

They date the oldest human fossils to about 770,000 years ago, at least 200,000 years older than previously thought, in work published this week in Nature. The dates are not the oldest that have been claimed for Chinese H. erectus, but they suggest this species survived during a mild glacial period at Zhoukoudian. They provide the earliest evidence that H. erectus lived this far north (39.93° North latitude) during near-glacial conditions.
But here is the cool part. This may provide circumstantial evidence for the use of fire by these extinct human cousins:
If the new dates are right, then H. erectus was at Zhoukoudian during a relatively mild glacial period about 750,000 years ago that brought icy winds and snow to the region--similar, perhaps, to the cold, dry climate today in southern Siberia. Studies of animal fossils, isotopes, and dust in the cave also suggest that H. erectus was there when the climate fluctuated between cold, dry glacial periods and wet, warm interglacials for 400,000 years. Surviving the cold implies they used fire, which is not surprising for these big-brained hominids but has been very difficult to prove.
Read the full story in Science (you will need subscription to access the article) and an amazon link to The Jesuit and the Skull here.

For your campy pleasure, here is a synopsis and the trailer of a 70's Hong Kong film, The Mighty Peking Man (hmm...remember this is the "Mighty Peking Man" and not the Peking Man - and that may explain a bit of the size difference):
A party from Hong Kong exploring the Indian side of the Himalayan mountains discover the eponymous Peking Man, a gigantic ape-like creature, along with a beautiful blond woman named Samantha (Evelyn Kraft) whose parents had been killed in a plane crash. Samantha was raised by Utam (the Peking Man) with nothing to wear but an animal-skin bikini (which she later continues to wear in preference to the type of women's clothing more common in Hong Kong). Like Tarzan, she has learned both to swing through the trees on vines and to communicate with and command the jungle animals, with the exception of a venomous snake who bites her on the inner thigh, requiring the hero, Johnny (Danny Lee), to suck out the poison. Shortly thereafter, they fall in love.
Ha! How can you go wrong with this? And here is the trailer (it has everything: stampeding elephants, tigers fighting snakes, and a lady Tarzan) and a review from Ebert.