The Earliest Asians Yet

By Ciochon, Russell L. | Natural History, December 1995 | Go to article overview

The Earliest Asians Yet

Ciochon, Russell L., Natural History

The diesel-powered packet boat pushed against the sediment-charged current of the Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze River), which flowed swiftly through narrow gorges. Perched above the river's high-water mark, small villages nestled along ridges at the base of limestone towers or in niches along the steep walls. Archeologist Roy Larick, geochemist Chas Yonge, and I (a paleoanthropologist) were in this corner of central China in March of 1992 to explore caves containing deposits with the fossil remains of extinct mammals that inhabited this region millions of years ago. We had begun our river journey at the port of Yichang, accompanied by Chinese paleoanthropologists Huang Wanpo and Gu Yumin, who had invited us to undertake archeological and geochronological surveys of their sites. After a ten-hour journey upstream, we reached Wushan, in eastern Sichuan, the jumping-off point for our expedition. As our vessel coasted to the dock, throngs of porters crowded aboard; competing for the job of carrying our bags ashore.

Owing to the low water level at this time of year--prior to the heavy rains of late spring and summer--we had to cross four gangplanks and then climb a long series of stone steps to reach the town. A man who had been on the boat with us ran up the stairs, dangling a sting of exploding firecrackers. Following him were three somber men carrying a cloth-wrapped corpse on a bamboo litter. Close behind, five women, their arms linked, wailed and gesticulated. Traveling with the body of their relative, they, too, had made the river journey.

After a week's stay in Wushan, we crossed the river by ferry and headed south in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, passing through blooming, golden-hued fields of rape, an early Chinese domesticate still harvested for the oil in its seeds. Our destination was Longgupo (Dragon Hill) Cave, whose excavation by Chinese scientists had yielded stone artifacts, some remains of early humans, and the teeth of Gigantopithecus blacki, the largest primate ever to roam the earth (see "The Ape That Was," by Russell L. Ciochon, Natural History, November 1991).

We were following in the footsteps of paleontologist Walter Granger, who explored this region as a member of the American Museum's Central Asiatic Expeditions from 1921 to 1926. But Granger's first trip up this river was considerably more perilous than our own. Not only was the river's course swifter and more dangerous at that time, owing to the lack of dams and locks, but Granger had also steamed into the middle of an interprovincial war. The Sichuanese army, which had invaded Hubei Province, was trying to seize the river port at Yichang, just below the Yangtze Gorges. At Yichang, the river is more than a half mile wide, and Granger's steamer--surrounded by American, British, and Japanese gunboats--was anchored offshore. When fighting broke out, Granger was able to watch the Sichuanese swoop down on the Hubei defenders from limestone pinnacles and cliffs 500 feet above the river:

The defenders who had been holding this ridge opposite Ichang


were driven off it before our eyes. Some of them managed to get into ravines between the pinnacles and reach the water's edge by steep trails, but many were actually pushed over the sheer face of the slope and rolled down to the water's edge, either killed by the fall or drowned as they plunged into the river. ... I remember observing the first onslaught through my porthole while shaving shortly after daybreak, and the observations were continued through the saloon windows while at breakfast and later from the upper deck of the steamboat. (The New Conquest of Central Asia, 1932)

Just as Yichang was about to fall to the invaders, reinforcements headed by General Wu Peifu arrived from the capital, and the city was spared.

Two and a half hours after leaving Wushan, we pulled into Miao-yu, a village of 500 that would be our base of operations. Dating from the Ming dynasty, the village sits at the end of a karst valley rimmed by limestone peaks. …

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