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Peking Man was older, colder than science knew

By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press / March 12, 2009
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WASHINGTON - A famous early ancestor of humans was able to thrive in glacial weather that would send shivers up the spines of most modern people, new research shows.

New dating techniques suggest the remains of so-called Peking Man - a batch of Homo erectus fossils found in the 1920s - are 200,000 years older than previously calculated.

What's important about that date, about 770,000 years ago, is that this was a glacial period on earth, and Peking Man was found in far northern China.

That suggests he was probably the oldest cold-weather inhabitant in human ancestry, said study coauthor Darryl Granger, an atmospheric scientist at Purdue University whose research appears in today's edition of the journal Nature. The average yearly temperature at the time in that part of China - at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing - hovered around the freezing mark, but it was too dry for an ice sheet, he said.

The research demonstrates just how "wimpy" modern humans are, said Rick Potts, of the Smithsonian Institution.

So how did Peking Man survive the cold? Potts raised three possibilities:

  • Fire. Early findings showed signs of a fire in Peking Man's cave. But there has been debate about whether the fire was accidental or controlled.

  • Fur. There is no evidence that this human ancestor used crude tools to make form-fitting clothes. Loosely worn animal fur is more likely.

  • Homo erectus had evolved to handle the cold.

    It's that last part that is the most intriguing, Potts said. Peking Man may have had physiological changes that allowed more blood to flow to his extremities, he said.

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