Creationist Arguments: Peking Man

Creationists often claim that the Peking Man fossils are the remains of apes or monkeys eaten by real humans; that the original fossils may have been disposed of to conceal the evidence of fraud; that only models of the fossils remain; and that they are distorted to fit evolutionist preconceptions. Duane Gish (1985) discusses Peking Man extensively, drawing most of his material from Boule and Vallois (1957). This book, which was almost 30 years old when Gish wrote, was a light revision by Vallois of a book that had originally been written by Boule another 20 years or so previously (Boule died in 1942).

Gish, citing the "fact" that the bases of the skulls had been bashed in so the brains could be extracted, states that "All authorities agree that every one of the Sinanthropus [Peking Man] individuals had been killed by hunters and eaten". That may have been true in 1957, although Boule and Vallois do not say so. It is definitely not true now. Almost all recent authorities (Jia (1990) is an exception) reject as unsupported the idea that Sinanthropus was hunted. The missing skull parts are the most fragile parts which are least likely to be preserved. It is most probable that the skulls were the prey of hyenas, the bones and feces of which were often found in the excavation.

Boule and Vallois do discuss the claims of various scientists that Sinanthropus had been eaten by modern man, or by Sinanthropus himself (i.e. cannibalism). Gish ignores the latter option and declares that since humans were responsible, Sinanthropus could not have been our ancestor, and must have been a giant ape. This is incorrect; ancestor and descendant species can coexist. So Gish's argument fails on multiple grounds: there is no proof, or even good evidence, that the Sinanthropus skulls were eaten by anyone, let alone modern humans. Even if they were, it would still not show that Peking Man was not a primitive human.

Gish's claim that the skullcaps are of apes is similarly farfetched. The largest skullcap, about 1225 cc, is twice as large as that of a large male gorilla. Any ape with a brain that size would be enormous, but no such ape has been found at Zhoukoudian or anywhere else, and the jaws of Peking Man are much smaller, and more human-like, than those of a gorilla or any other ape. The skullcaps are, however, very similar to (but larger than) those of some Homo erectus skulls, one of which is attached to a body that even Gish recognizes as human (the Turkana Boy). Clearly it makes more sense to assume that Peking Man belonged to the same species than to hypothesize giant apes.

Gish claims that "The features of the lower jaws described by Boule and Vallois were all apelike except for the shape of the dental arcade ...". In fact, Boule and Vallois list only 3 apelike characteristics (one of which, a receding chin, is found in many fossil humans), and 1 humanlike characteristic, but state that there are more of both. They agree with the conclusion of Weidenreich, who said the lower jaws present "a veritable intermingling of pithecoid [apelike] and human characters".

Gish similarly claims the teeth were apelike, "with very few exceptions". Boule and Vallois do state that the teeth are apelike, though not as emphatically as Gish does. They list 7 features: 3 apelike, 1 humanlike, and 3 others whose significance is unclear.

Gish does not mention the few skeletal bones that were found, probably because Boule and Vallois' discussion shows that they were all similar or identical to the same bones in modern humans, although the limb bone fragments were very thick. Boule and Vallois suspected that they might not belong to the same creatures as the skulls, but modern finds have confirmed that Homo erectus does have a primitive skull combined with a robust but essentially modern skeleton.

Gish concludes, based on the above, that Sinanthropus was an ape. His method of comparing the numbers of apelike and manlike characteristics is worthless, since it is totally dependent on the few features, out of the many available, that Boule and Vallois chose to mention. Gish further distorted this scanty evidence by exaggerating the number of apelike features, and omitting Boule and Vallois' frequent references to the human features and intermediate status of Peking Man.

Although Gish does not seem to have examined any of the primary documentation on Peking Man, he rejects the conclusions reached by all of the qualified scientists who have studied either the original fossils or the extensive material available on them.

His conclusion is not supported by Boule and Vallois, any of the other authors quoted by them, or any modern authorities. The opinions are divided as to whether Sinanthropus is advanced enough to be called human, but no one considers it an ape. Boule and Vallois state that Peking Man has "physical characters intermediate between the group of Anthropoid Apes and the group of Hominians", and that there are many characters of the skull "which, if they do not yet conform exactly to the human morphological type, are singularly close to it". The conclusion of Boule and Vallois was that:

"Morphologically,there is not the slightest doubt. Sinanthropus confirms and completes the proof that there are creatures with physical characters intermediate between the group of Anthropoid Apes and the group of Hominians." (Boule and Vallois 1957, p.142)

Another claim is that only models of the fossils remain, which, because they were made by committed evolutionists, may not be accurate copies. Gish appears to be confused about the words "cast" and "model", once using them as if they were synonymous. A cast, made from a mold of the fossil, is an almost exact duplicate. Excellent casts of the Peking Man fossils were made, and are mentioned in many books, including that of the creationist author Lubenow (1992). The models of complete skulls Gish refers to may partly reflect the subjective views of their maker since missing information will have had to be guessed at, but the primary evidence of Peking Man's affinities remains the casts and extensive documentation of the original material, not models of skulls. The model in question was made by Weidenreich, using parts of at least 4 different individuals. By that time almost all of the Peking Man material had been found, and most portions of the skull were known, so Weidenreich's reconstruction is likely to be fairly accurate. The braincase was precisely known and is clearly far more similar to that of a modern human than any ape.

Gish states that since this model, shown in Boule and Vallois, differs glaringly from their earlier text descriptions, and from a model of Java Man shown earlier in the book, it is inadmissible as evidence of Peking Man's affinities. The model, which looks impressively intermediate between a gorilla and a modern human (as Gish admits), is in fact quite consistent with Boule and Vallois' description; it is "glaringly different" only from Gish's misrepresentation of Sinanthropus as an ape.

The Java Man reconstruction relied on fewer and less complete fossils, so is not as reliable. Part of the difference is probably also due to the Java Man skulls having a flatter, receding forehead compared to the more convex Peking Man skulls (Burenhult 1993) (and, in fact, a flatter forehead is the major difference between what Gish says are "glaringly different" reconstructions).

Interestingly, Gish says that if Weidenreich's model is considered accurate, Boule and Vallois' claim that Peking Man is intermediate between ape and man could hardly be rejected. All the evidence is that the model was accurate, but those who do not accept it should note that Weidenreich's model is strikingly similar to other erectus skulls such as WT 15000 and ER 3733. Therefore, these fossils are, according to Gish's own logic, indisputable transitional forms.

If Boule was biased, as Gish claims, it was in making Sinanthropus sound more apelike than it really was. Gish, in asserting that Peking Man was an ape, is adding to Boule's bias, rather than correcting for it. Gish nowhere explains why the discrepancy between Boule's description of a creature midway between ape and human and Weidenreich's more humanlike reconstruction provides evidence that Peking Man was an ape.

If Peking Man were an ape, Weidenreich must have been unbelievably incompetent to produce such a humanlike reconstruction. But descriptions of Weidenreich and his work often use words such as "meticulous, "compulsively careful", "detailed", and the casts he made of the Peking Man fossils are usually described as "excellent". He was a superb anatomist even by today's standards (Walker and Shipman 1996).

Gish's statement that "All we have available are the models fashioned by Weidenreich" is totally untrue. It not only ignores the difference between models and casts, but also the extensive other documentation available. Weidenreich produced hundreds of pages of detailed monographs on the fossils, with photos, measurements, descriptions, drawings, and even X-rays.

The only way these fossils could be apes would be if Weidenreich systematically fabricated not only the skull reconstruction, but his entire body of work. Even this would not be sufficient, as the earlier fossils were photographed, described, and had casts made of them, before Weidenreich ever saw them. Other scientists who visited Peking also saw the original fossils. Unless there was an extraordinarily widespread conspiracy among all the people who found, worked on, photographed and saw the fossils, they are genuine. As a testimony to the accuracy of the casts, some skull parts found in 1966 fit perfectly with casts of earlier portions to make most of a skullcap.

The other source used by Gish is Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis (1969) by Rev. Patrick O'Connell, a Roman Catholic priest who was in China during the 1930's. O'Connell claimed that Peking Man was a large scale fraud, which presumably would have had to involve most of the people working with the fossils, and that the fossils may have been deliberately destroyed to remove the evidence. O'Connell never visited Choukoutien, never saw the fossils, apparently had no relevant expertise, and gave no evidence for his wild claims. Gish, while not endorsing these claims, is at least sympathetic to them.

O'Connell's mind-bogglingly incompetent book appears, through its influence on Gish and Bowden, to have been the original source of the idea, once widespread among creationists, that the Peking Man skulls belonged to apes or even monkeys. Gish's early book Evolution: the fossils say no! (1972, 1979) relied heavily upon a fraudulent translation by O'Connell which supposedly claimed that the Peking skulls were "monkey-like". Gish's later books dropped the use of this quote. (Read The Monkey Quote for a full history of this episode, and also a review of O'Connell's book by Colin Groves)

Gish also states "Boule had visited Peking and Choukoutien and had examined the originals." C. Loring Brace, in a debate with Gish in 1982 and in a later article (Brace 1986), rightly called this "pure invention". Boule never visited either place, and worked from photos and descriptions. Despite this correction, Gish has repeated the assertion in 1985 and 1995, and in debates as recently as 1992. (Fezer 1993)

Malcolm Bowden (1981) also discusses Peking Man at length, attempting to show, based on the scientific literature, that it was a large monkey.

Bowden cites an article by Teilhard de Chardin (1930) on Skull III, in which de Chardin said that its brain size "would not be large in view of the relatively small dimensions of the skull and the considerable thickness of the bone walls". According to Bowden, Teilhard also says (this quote is actually a mistranslation):

"Looked at from behind, the top of the skull of Sinanthropus is of grossly triangular shape like that of monkeys, rather than oval-shaped, as in man." (Teilhard de Chardin 1930)
A later article by Teilhard also listed some apelike features. Bowden considers this enough evidence to decide that "it is clear that all that had been found was the skull of a large monkey", even though de Chardin's article gives a very different impression. Bowden does no analysis to show that Sinanthropus was a large monkey. Instead, he seems to start with the assumption that transitional forms can not exist, and that any fossil with apelike characteristics must, since it is not human, be either an ape or monkey.

Bowden gives other evaluations that also mentioned the small size of the skull, and concludes that the only evidence that the skull approached 1000 cc is the measurements by Black and Weidenreich (960 and 915 cc respectively). Bowden clearly considers the above evaluations inconsistent with these measurements, despite the fact 1000 cc is a very small size for a modern human.

Bowden criticizes the reconstructions of the skulls on the grounds that:

"They were always broken, generally into fairly small pieces. Only the Locus E skull [Skull III] was reasonably complete, and even that had the base missing and was badly damaged." (Bowden 1981)
This is incorrect. At least 4 of the 5 braincases were "reasonably complete" (I have not seen pictures of the 5th). Skull III was unbroken, and only lightly damaged, as Bowden himself documents:
"Except for [Skull III], all specimens were broken into more or less small pieces ..." (Weidenreich; quoted by Bowden p.111)

"The whole of the brain case of the Locus E was well preserved and not deformed, except for a damaged area around the occiput [base]." (Teilhard de Chardin, 1930; quoted by Bowden p.97)

The other skulls were in pieces, but this is common; many fossil finds have to be reassembled from fragments. Such reassembly is often a painstaking task (Richard Leakey has likened it to doing a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with no edges and half the pieces missing), but it can be done, and the results are not, as Bowden claims, "a matter of many assumptions and much guesswork".

Bowden criticizes Weidenreich's model of Peking Man on the grounds that it was mostly based on Skull XI, which was "not complete, and consisted of a number of broken fragments", with extra measurements from Skulls II and XII, facial bones that were mixed with the facial bones of Skull X, and a lower jaw with one tooth found 80 ft higher. In fact, Skull XI is an almost complete braincase, with only minor gaps that are easily filled in. It is hard to see the relevance of Bowden's other points. Using extra skulls should improve the reliability of the reconstruction. Using facial parts from other fossils should not affect the accuracy unless those parts happened to be very atypical, and enough Peking Man fossils existed to avoid that problem. The distance of the lower jaw seems irrelevant if it is from the same species as the skulls.

Bowden's claim that the Peking Man skulls were not even of apes, but of monkeys, is ridiculous. Four of the five skulls are over twice the maximum brain size of a chimpanzee, and monkeys are considerably smaller than chimps. Worse, Bowden says that "in his book Fossil Men, [Boule] is clearly unconvinced that Sinanthropus was other than a monkey", but the quote from Boule and Vallois (1957) that Bowden gives in support of his assertion implies nothing of the sort; it is Boule's claim that Sinanthropus had been hunted by humans. In fact, Boule, as the quotes given above show, made it quite clear that Sinanthropus was not a monkey, or even an ape, but intermediate between apes and humans.

The effort Gish and Bowden expend in discrediting Peking Man seems totally wasted, as it is all nullified by the far more competent work of Lubenow (1992), another creationist. Lubenow accepts Peking Man as Homo erectus as a matter of course, and, although he must have been familiar with Gish and Bowden's criticisms, apparently (and rightly) did not consider any of them worth repeating. In recent years, Lubenow's interpretation appears to be gaining ground over that of Gish and Bowden among creationists.

Related links

Compare Peking Man with Homo erectus

Compare Peking Man with a monkey

A Mistranslated Quote

The Missing Ten Skeletons

The 'Monkey Quote' of Marcellin Boule

A review of O'Connell's book Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis, by Colin Groves

Creationists and the Pithecanthropines, by C. Loring Brace

Fossil Evidence for Human Evolution in China (lots of excellent material, including a page with pictures and descriptions of some of the Peking Man fossils)

Peking Man World Heritage Site

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

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