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Wu Xinzhi: thousands of miles discovering fossils

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2013-12-05

For many, the path to erudition involves pouring over texts, turning thousands of pages. Some, however, travel thousands of miles in the pursuit of knowledge. In recent decades, Wu Xinzhi has bravely trudged every corner of China in his “iron shoes” searching for fossils.

Paleoanthropology is a field of both immense practical challenges and obstacles, so consequently it attracts less enthusiasm from scholars. Wu though, professed that any moment his research can give him a deep feeling of joy and fulfillment. “Looking back on several decades of study, I would say the great pleasure I’ve had is to be able to realize my own values. This discipline has really taken off—new discoveries and achievements quickly revise and enrich former triumphs.”

A well-known paleoanthropologist in China, Wu Xinzhi won first prize in the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Awards in Natural Science in 1991 for his research on ancient humans, and was appointed an academician of CAS in 1999.

When asked how to define his discipline, Wu explained that paleoanthropology first emerged as an independent field sometime in the 1920s, largely based on the discovery of archeological sites at Zhoukoudian (a cave system near Beijing) and in the Hetao region (around the headwaters of the Yellow River in Northwest China). At that time, most researchers came from abroad. Only after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, was there a big push to develop paleoanthropology domestically, part of which included resuming excavation at Zhoukoudian.

“In the 1950s, few fossils of ancient humans had been found in China. Except for Zhoukoudian and Shalawusu, hardly any sites for excavation had been discovered,” Wu Xinchi said. “Later though, many successive discoveries were made. At present, there are more than 80 fossil sites in China; a decent number of human skulls have even been uncovered during archaeological studies.”

“Since 1982, Chinese paleoanthropologists have started academic journals and produced dozens of related papers each year, some of which have been published in international journals. Also, new methodologies are quickly gaining ground in Chinese paleoanthropology. For example, we’ve adopted CT scanning to collect 3D images, and started using technology which enables us to extract DNA from fossils.”

Wu Xinzhi’s personal research experience is a microcosm of the development of China’s paleoanthropology. Wu Xinzhi matriculated to Shanghai Medical College in 1947, later attending a class for advanced studies in anatomy at the Ministry of Health of the Central Government. In 1957, he successfully applied to the Graduate School of CAS, where he majored in paleoanthropology. After graduating from CAS in 1961, he diligently worked his way up the ranks of scholarship, serving successively as an assistant researcher, associate researcher, researcher, and then finally vice director of CAS’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

In 1984, Wu and some foreign collaborators proposed the hypothesis of a “multiregional origin of modern humans”, which remains one of the two most controversial theories about the origin of modern humans. His 1998 hypothesis of humans in East Asia, which characterizes human evolution in China as “continuity with hybridization”, has been influential in global academia. Taking the continuous evolution of the ancient Chinese as his starting point, Wu argues that the relatively independent evolution of humans in ancient China over the course of a million years resulted in the Chinese possessing easily recognizable morphological characteristics that distinguish them from other genetic groups. Though their hybridization with groups of humans from other regions was rare, it was frequent enough that the Chinese people and other humans continued to be the same species.

“In the future, with more excavations, Chinese scholars will enrich paleoanthropological theories and even modify some subtle issues,” Wu affirmed assuredly. “China’s paleoanthropology will develop and grow even stronger.”

“The toughest mission is to find fossils!” Wu Xinzhi bemoaned, reflecting on his searches. Lacking any convenient means transportation, Wu had to ride in a coal wagon and live in a barn. The joys and tribulations of bushwhacking and slashing through thistle are something one can only know for oneself, Wu said. “When I was on an investigation at Xishuangbanna, the place was absolutely desolate— not a soul to be seen. I carried my luggage and a bamboo basket with dishes, drinking water from springs day after day. However, it was even worse in Lantian. The place I was living in was full of mice and fleas. Sometimes, I would spend lots of time excavating fossils only to find that they had already been dug out by others. That was so depressing!”

Not discovering fossils is just the tip of the iceberg for paleoanthropologists though. The biggest difficulties they encounter are in the actual course of research. Unlike scholars in other disciplines, paleoanthropologists cannot turn to other literature in the field or examine documents to advance their field of study; instead they must look at pieces of ancient tooth or bone fragments. Wu said: “the earliest specimen I used was discovered in the 1950s, but no one had figured out its meaning. The significance of this discipline is not only discovering fossils or evidence, but finding out what these discoveries mean. Although I often feel like I am beating my head against a wall, when I finally figure out the significance of something, I feel overjoyed.”



The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 513, Oct. 21, 2013

The Chinese link:



 Translated by Zhang Mengying

  Revised by Charles Horne

Editor: Du Mei

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