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January 6, 2012

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Digging up China's bones

ZHOU Guoxing has tracked missing skulls of Peking Man, led expeditions in search of the Chinese Wild Man and the Abominable Snowman, made major discoveries about human origins and helped police with forensics.

Paleoanthropologist Zhou, 74, a former director of the Beijing Museum of Natural History, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Shanghai Anthropological Association last November at Fudan University; he delivered a talk and spoke to Shanghai Daily. "Anthropologists are explorers who adventure into the past," he said.

Zhou has been at the forefront of some of the most significant excavations in China and played a leading role in the study of human evolution. He maintains there are multiple origins of Chinese culture, noting that besides the Yellow River, the Yangtze River is another cradle of ancient civilization. By studying the Yuanmou Man's fossils and artifacts in Yunnan Province, he confirmed that Chinese history started at least 1.7 million years ago. His findings were detailed in the article "On the Start of China as History" (1998).

He led the excavations of the Mesolithic Bailiandong cave sites in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and accidentally came upon evidence of the Lingjing Mesolithic culture in today's Henan Province. He got a clue when he spotted deposits of quartz, a mineral commonly used to make tools. At the time he had been sent to the countryside in a campaign called the "four cleanups" in 1964. Official excavation began in 2005.

Unlike many other scientists who confine their work to the field or laboratory, Zhou spreads the word through popular science books and is dedicated to promoting science by writing. In 1990 he was named Distinguished Popular Science Writer by the Chinese Association of Popular Science Writers. Today he is writing about his adventures in search of the Chinese Wildman of Hubei Province. Although he has debunked the stories, he thinks mysteries spur curiosity and encourage young people to be interested in anthropology, archeology and other fields.

"I'm very willing to write, but lots of scientists are not interested in publishing popular science. Chinese academic emphasizes on quantity of papers published as a prime gauge of advancement.

"Scientists have the responsibility to introduce research findings to the public at the appropriate time, instead of holding them as their private hobbies," Zhou said.

Zhou, wearing a mustache and dark-framed spectacles, has fascinating stories to tell and he's eager to tell them.

Early life

Born in 1937 in Nantong City, Jiangsu Province, Zhou attended schools in Nantong before attending Fudan University, where he majored in anthropology; in 1962 he went on to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1979 He joined the Beijing Museum of Natural History, first as head of anthropology, later as head of the museum.

His interest in anthropology started in high school.

"I have always loved nature since I was a child, and became fascinated by Darwin's theory of evolution in high school," he said. Zhou read widely and determined to study people born hundreds of thousands of years ago.

One afternoon while he was in high school, Zhou came upon a cemetery and saw an open coffin. He stooped down to have a close look.

"I found a round object, a human skull," he said. "It was very smooth and hideous, but I wasn't frightened of it at all."

He wrapped it up carefully and took it back to his dorm where he cleaned it meticulously, then placed it beside his bed and treated it as a treasure.

"I feel for them. Those dry skeletons used to be flesh and blood. They are sad."

He clearly remembered how he acquired skeletons for the anthropology department's researchers when the city cleaned up unidentified tombs in the Dachang Cemetery in 1960.

"I opened up a tomb and was surprised to find a young girl's skeleton. He found her pen and diary, which told him she was a 16-year-old soldier in the People's Liberation Army.

Human skulls and other remains have a kind of life in Zhou's view and he "reads" them to understand how early humans lived.

"People have misunderstandings about the dead," Zhou said. "The really dreadful ones are the living persons. You hold the skull in your hand, and it won't bite you, rob you or attack you," he said.

Crime solver

His forensics knowledge even helped police in Ningbo in Zhejiang Province solve a murder. They showed him a skeleton dug out from the mud. Zhou estimated the victim's height, age and cause of death. He found a gag that contained a piece of grain and deduced that the man was murdered in a barn. He turned out to be right and helped solve the case.

In 1966, he investigated mass graves in Datong Mines, Shanxi Province. After examining 200 bodies he concluded they were murdered by Japanese invaders and dumped down coal mine shafts.

Zhou has studied tens of thousands of human and ape skulls. Shortly before the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), he was asked to examine the skull of the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). That skull and those of two concubines were on his office desk but not for long. They were taken back to the Ming Dynasty Tombs in Beijng for a public "trial" and the skulls were crushed.

He continued his research during the "cultural revolution" when he was criticized for academic research that zealots said was not relevant to people's lives. He later left the Chinese Academy of Sciences for the Beijing Museum of Natural History.

But he regrets that he hasn't had a chance to touch the skull fragments of Peking Man, which were discovered around 1921 and disappeared in World War II during War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). He has tried to track them down, without success.

The bone fragments, believed to be around 700,000 years old, were packed to be sent to the United States for safekeeping in 1941, until the end of the war. But they never arrived. Some people speculate they were stolen en route to the port city of Qinhuangdao in northern China. Others say it sank on a ship, perhaps the Awa Maru, in 1945.

Zhou tried to trace the fossils of Peking Man for three decades, following every lead and contacting the US Navy and Japanese Universities.

"I believe they were not lost but hidden by someone," he said. "They didn't disappear in the turmoil of war but were peacefully relocated somewhere."

He says the skulls may appear someday in the future.

His familiarity with Peking Man helped him discover the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) Lingjing culture in what is now Henan Province.

While working in the countryside planting trees in Jingling Village he found a deposit of quartz, a mineral commonly used in prehistoric tools. He remembered that Swedish geologist Johan Andersson had discovered Peking Man after spotting a quartz deposit and deciding to excavate there.

Zhou then talked with villagers and found the site contained many "dragon bones" of prehistoric animals. As he dug he found stone tools at the site.

Wild Man

One of Zhou's major interests has been investigating the so-called Wild Man, also known as Yeren, Yeti, Sasquatch, Big Foot and the Abominable Snowman. Stories of the Wild Man have abounded in China for centuries and there were occasional sightings.

In a major expedition, Zhou tried to track the Wild Man to his lair. He visited the Shennongjia region in western Hubei Province and climbed mountains there for seven months; he went to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Himalayas and other places where sightings were reported.

"There is no Wild Man in this world," he said. "I've visited every place where the Wild Man was reported in China.

"I've studied everything related to the Wild Man including hair, skulls and specimens. All of them are dyed human hair or come from monkeys and bears."

They hunted bears, boars and giant salamander and tasted all the mountain game. Zhou was a marksman and had coached the Fudan shooting team. He shot down all kinds of birds and offered specimens to a Shanghai ornithologist, who wrote a scientific research paper based on his gift.

"I regret that very much now," Zhou said. "We didn't realize the importance of environmental protection at that time." Now he always intervenes when he sees people abusing animals or damaging the environment.

As for Wild Man, some local governments are promoting the Wild Man to boost tourism and there's a problem of fakes in anthropology and archeology, Zhou said.

"Foreigners says that Chinese are always coming up with fake, sensational findings."

Friends with locals

In finding the right place to excavate, Zhou spent long periods getting to know locals, often ethnic groups who were familiar with the terrain, tales of their ancestors and where there were bone, pottery and other items.

Zhou was taught in school that he would win locals' friendship and gain information by giving them small gifts and decorative items. But when he started to work in villages, he found that locals already had those things.

Instead, Zhou won their friendship by taking pictures of them, which was a novelty.

Zhou is also a good drinker and he socialized extensively with locals. He also required his own students to be ready, willing and able to drink with locals and not to hold back.

"Ethnic groups are very hospitable," Zhou said. "If they offer you a big bowl of wine, can you refuse that?"


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