Until the late 1980s, it was believed that the first hominid (Homo erectus) appears in China about 800,000 B.C.; excavations at the newly discovered site of Longgupo Cave, however, found fossils, dated to between 1.96 and 1.78 million years old, that some experts claim as hominids but other see as prehominid apes. In any case, this appears to be an isolated instance, and the main focus on early hominids in China remains on the fossils found at the Zhoukoudian caves near present-day Beijing. (The fossils are still popularly known as “Peking Man.”) During the next 500,000–600,000 years, this species disperses through much of central and northeastern China. Eventually this hominid species is replaced by the archaic Homo sapiens, which appears in China sometime after 250,000 B.C. By around 50,000 bp, Homo sapiens sapiens replaces previous hominids in China. By 12,000 bp, late Paleolithic people form a half dozen or more distinct cultures in China, and practices suggesting ideas of kinship, the arts, and religion develop.
China's legendary history opens around 3,000 B.C. with the advent of a series of semidivine figures who instruct the nomadic Chinese in the activities of a more sedentary civilization: fishing, hunting, farming, and trading. In China's traditional history, the Yellow Emperor of c. 2700 B.C., the first of the “Five Premier Emperors,” used force to create a unified state; his successors are said to build on his achievement. The story of these early reigns, however, is strictly legendary, with no archaeological confirmation of any of the individuals or events. But increasingly remains of the third millennium B.C. begin to confirm at least some of the later traditions of an emerging and perhaps already distinctive form of society.
1,960,000?–1,780,000?B.C.: Hominid remains (dental fragments) in association with primitive stone tools found at Longgupo Cave near the Yangtze River in south-central China signify that hominids entered China much earlier than long thought. This species has more in common with fossils (Homo ergaster and Homo habilis) found in East Africa and is not the same as the Homo erectus found in China a million years later.