Catching Up with China's Past

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, May 18, 1985 | Go to article overview
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Catching Up with China's Past


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Taoism has served as a spiritual guide in China for 2,500 years. It was formulated by Lao Tsu, who also wrote that the ancient beginning experienced throught Tao Cannot be seen, heard or touched because it is "indefinable and beyond imagination."

But there are ancient beginnings in China of a far moral concrete--or bony, to be more exact--nature. They are the fossil remains of the forerunners of modern humans and apes, collected by Chinese scientists whose research has only recently broken through the language barrier to the West.

Paleontologists in the United States and Europe often become aware of major Chinese archaeological discoveries during their travels in Asia, by happening upon press reports and journal summaries or through the scientific grapevine. There have even been a few collaborations between American and Chinese scientists. Only in the last year, however, have extensive English translations of important Chinese research papers become widely available.

A ground-breaking series of articles translated by Dennis Etler of the University of California at Berkeley appears in the 1984 Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. The papers, first published in Chinese journals in the early 1980s, are written by a number of Chinese archaeologists who describe and analyze fossil hominolds -- creatures ancestral to apes and humans -- unearthed at the 8-million-year-old Lufeng site. Remains from "tens if not hundreds of individuals" have been found at Lufeng, says Etler.

More ancient beginnings and transitions, from Hominoids to modern humans, are illuminated in a book written by China's top archaeologists, titled Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology in the People's Republic of China (Academic Press, Inc., 1985). Anthropoligst John W. Olsen of the University of Arizona in Tucson translated the work into English and edited it with Wu Rukang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. Wu is considered the dean of Chinese archaeologists.

"Literally less than a tenth of 1 percent of the phenomenal amount of archaeology done since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s has been published in English even in summary," says Olsen. "The number and quality of Chinese fossils is very exciting."

The remains uncovered at Lufeng are a good example, he notes. Over the past decade, Lufeng has yielded the largest known collection of Ramapithecus and Sivapithecus bones, including several skulls, jaws and more than 1,000 teeth. Ramapithecus, which lived from about 8 million to 14 million years ago, is thought by some scientists to be an early human ancestor. Others say it is a smaller, female form of the ape genus Sivapithecus that lived at the same time and is often found in the same archaeological deposits.

Chinese scientists, and particularly Wu, appear to have flip-flopped on this argument over a relatively short period. In several early 1983 articles translated by Etler, Wu and colleagues contend that Ramapithecus and Sivapithecus are the female and male of one species, an ancestor of the orangutan. Later that year, in a NATURE article written with Charles Oxnard of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Wu says that an analysis of more than 1,000 teeth indicates that there were two distinct animals, with the smaller ramapiths evolving in a humanlike direction (SN: 1/21/84, p. 41). In Olsen's book, Wu and co-worker Xu Qinghua conclude that, until further analysis is completed, either of the two explanations is possible.

Oxnard, who stays in contact with Wu, says the Chinese scientist now supports the single-genus position, but interpretations of these fossils remain controversial. "Nearly everyone is in a state of flux on the nature of the Ramapithecus-Sivapithecus relationship," says Olsen.

Recent Chinese discoveries of Homo erectus fossils provoke less debate but are "extremely important," according to Olsen.

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