Upper Cave Zhoukoudian

Leading zooarchaeologist and palaeoanthropologist Professor Qi from the IVPP explaining the details of the Zhoukoudian site to Australian student Phoebe Newman in 1995.

The Upper Cave (Shandingdong) skeletons were excavated in 1933 and 1934, with the archaeological assemblage discussed by Pei (1935, 1939) and the human skeletal materials briefly described by Weidenreich (1939) and in more detail by Wu (1960, 1961). The fauna recovered from the lower chamber of the cave suggested to Pei that the deposits were of late Pleistocene age and this was confirmed by conventional radiocarbon dates on non- human bone (Wu and Wang 1985), as well as more recent AMS dates (Chen et al. 1989; Hedges et al. 1992; Hedges et al. 1988). Dates now extend from 10,175 ± 360 BP (ZK-136-0-4) for the upper part of the cave to 33,200 ±2000 BP (OXA-190) for the basal layers. Unfortunately, as I have discussed previously (Brown 1992), the published accounts of the excavation contain insufficient information to be certain of the stratigraphic relationship between the human remains and the dated animal bones.

Both Weidenreich (1939) and Pei (1935, 1939) argue that the human remains were part of intentional burials, with the skeletons subsequently disturbed and disarticulated by animal activity or erosion. It remains unclear whether the burials are contemporaneous with layer 4 or had been interred from a higher layer. Wu and Wang (1985) argue that the older dates from the Upper Cave are well below the areas of human occupation, which they place at around 10,000 BP, while (Chen et al. 1989; Hedges et al. 1992; Hedges et al. 1988) suggest 29-24 ka BP for the cultural layers. Li et al. (2018) report new AMS dates for the Upper Cave of 35-33 ka BP which they believe provide a guide to the age of the human burials. As the AMS dates are for non-human mammal bone, not one of the three human skeletons, they date part of the deposit and the relationship to the human burials is unknown.

Weidenreich (1939) believed that the Upper Cave skeletons provided the earliest evidence for the presence of modern humans in the East Asian region. What perplexed Weidenreich, however, was the variation between the three crania, 101, 102 and 103, and the absence of clearly defined East Asian skeletal morphology. When discussing the racial affinity of these crania 101 was considered to be a primitive Mongoloid, 102 a Melanesian and 103 an Eskimo. These conclusions, at best poorly supported, have been discussed in some detail by a number of authors, particularly in relation to the evolutionary history of East Asia (Coon 1962; Kaminga and Wright1988; Wolpoff et al. 1984; Wu 1960, 1961). Unfortunately, the original specimens, along with the Locality 1 Homo erectus materials, were lost in 1941 (Shapiro 1976) and can now only be studied through casts.One of the crania, the so called "Melanesian woman" 102 (below), was also thought to have had her head shape modified when she was a child.

Of the three crania Upper Cave 101, the "old man", has been studied in more detail primarily due to its better preservation and clearly adult status. In comparison to modern East Asians the cranial vault is extremely long and low, with a receding frontal squama and marked angulation in the occipital region. The forehead is broad and the supercilliary region well developed. The nasal bones are pinched, with a high bridge, and the nose must have been more prominent than is common amongst living East Asians. The orbits are relatively low and rectangular, which is a common feature in terminal Pleistocene and Neolithic crania from many parts of the world. The lower border of the nasal aperture is gutted, which is customary amongst East Asians, Australian Aborigines and sub-Saharan Africans. There is moderate sub-nasal prognathism and the mandible has a prominent chin, slight gonial eversion, trace of a mandibular torus and a broad ramus. Weidenreich (1939) did not record dental dimensions and the moderately worn teeth have not been described in detail. All teeth are present and the arch is well spaced, without malocclusion. Comparison of tooth wear rates with known age hunter gatherers suggest that Upper Cave 101 was probably in his late 30's when he died and not an "old man" by today's standards.

To what extent the oro-facial skeleton and cranial vault of Upper Cave 101 contains either "proto-Mongoloid" or East Asian anatomical characteristics has been the subject of some debate (Kaminga and Wright 1988; Wolpoff et al. 1984; Neves and Pucciarelli 1998). Living East Asians and Native Americans have a facial skeleton characterised by great facial height, a tall nasal aperture, high orbits, limited overall prognathism but often marked subnasal prognathism, only moderate bi-frontal breadth but a relatively broad mid-facial region. The nasal bones are generally flattened rather than pinched, the anterolateral surface of the frontal processes of the malars are rotated forwards and the inferior half of the external surface of the malars tend to be orientated upwards, rather than perpendicular. This suite of features are also found in the early Neolithic sites of Baoji (Yan et al. 1960) and Huaxian (Yan 1962) but they are not a feature of Upper Cave 101.Turner (1992) has argued that his Sinodont pattern was "probably present in the late Pleistocene north China Upper cave crania" (:145), however, it is unlikely that the majority of his dental traits can be reliably scored on the Upper Cave casts. Neves and Pucciarelli (1998) argue that not only are "Mongoloid" morphological features not present in Upper Cave 101, they are not present in South Ameican paleoindian crania either. They conclude that East Asian morphological features evolved in the Old World after the initial migration to the Americas. I think that this is supported by what is currently known from the Paleolthic and Neolithic skeletal assemblages from China (Brown 1999). People with a distinctive East Asian appearance do not appear until the Neolithic period at sites like Baoji at around 7000 years BP. Harvati (2009) completed a geometric morphometric re-assessment of the Upper Cave crania, which also confirmed the distinction from recent East Asians made by Brown (1992, 1999) and others. Not surprising as they are not modern East Asians and preserve morphological features common to Late Pleistocene modern humans throughout the Old World.



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Li, F. et al., 2018. Re-dating Zhoukoudian Upper Cave, northern China and its regional significance. Journal of Human Evolution 121: 170-177

Neves, W. and Pucciarelli, H. 1998. The Zhoukoudian Upper Cave skull 101 as seen from the Americas. Journal of Human Evolution 34: 219-222.

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Table 1. Comparative dimensions of Upper Cave 101, Liujiang and Minatogawa 1.

Variable list U.C. 101 Liujiang Minatogawa
glabella-opisthocranion 206 191 181
basion-nasion 109 105 102
basion-bregma 133 135 136
max. cranial breadth 144 143 147
bi-auricular breadth 137 126 129
bi-asterionic breadth 122 108 117
basion-prosthion 107 104 (105)
nasion-prosthion 76 66 (61)
nasal height 58 46 (50)
nasal breadth 33 25 25
palate breadth 69 64 (65)
mastoid height 31 22 32
orbit height 34 27 30
orbit breadth 45 41 45
bi-maxillary breadth 104 98 (105)
bi-frontal breadth 108 106 111
nasion-bregma chord 116 102 105
nasion-bregma subt. 29 28 20
nasion-subtense fraction 64 52 47
bregma-lambda chord 120 118 111
bregma-lambda subt. 22 25 24
bregma-subtense fraction 52 65 61
lambda-opisthion chord 98 92 (95)
lambda-opisthion subt. 28 25 (22)
lambda-subtense fraction 33 37 (32)


East Asian Index