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Davidson Black

the first to describe what is popularly known as Peking Man

Davidson Black

Davidson Black was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1884. As a youth, he became an expert canoeist, and he spent several summers carrying supplies long distances by canoe for the Hudson Bay Company, during which time he befriended Indians and learned their languages. His willingness and ability to learn about and respect other cultures would prove invaluable later in his life.

In 1903, Black entered into medical studies at the University of Toronto. After receiving his medical degree in 1906, he took up the study of comparative anatomy, and received his M.A. degree in 1909. He then became an anatomy instructor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Black already had an interest in human evolution when, in 1914, he spent part of the year working under neuroanatomist Grafton Elliot Smith in England. It was during this period that he became interested in proving that humans had evolved in central Asia. The opportunity to further that goal came in 1919, when he was invited to work at the Peking Union Medical College in China. He would spend the rest of his working life in China, where he became well known for treating colleagues as equals rather than employees (unlike most other European scientists of the day).

In 1926, Black learned that two human fossil teeth had been found at Zhoukoudian, near Peking. Although he never saw the teeth, he was convinced that Zhoukoudian was the site from which he could prove that humans had evolved in central Asia, and, after securing a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, began his own major excavation there in 1927. After finding another tooth later that year, Black decided that enough evidence existed to justify designating an entirely new genus, and he subsequently named the specimens Sinanthropus pekinensis ("Chinese man of Peking"). According to Black, "Peking Man" was "a thinking being, standing erect, dating to the beginning of the Ice Age."

Not surprisingly, Black's assertion that three teeth (two of which he had never seen) were enough to create an entirely new genus was not well accepted by the scientific community, and Black traveled worldwide with "his tooth" to try and gain support for his position. He gained some support after half of a lower jaw with three teeth in place was found in 1928, but it was the discovery of a fairly complete skull at Zhoukoutian in 1929 that cemented Black's claim. Another skull was discovered later that same year, and Black's assertion that Peking Man represented a pre-human fossil became fairly widely accepted. However, his contention that Peking Man represented an entirely new genus was subsequently dismissed, and the specimens have since been reclassified as belonging to the Home erectus ancestral line. By 1932 Black had gained enough respect within the scientific community to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Although he was born with a congenital heart defect, Black had always been in the habit of working long, hard hours, and was often sidelined with heart problems. His workaholic nature finally caught up with him on March 15, 1934, when he died of a heart attack while working alone in his office late one night.

Work at Zhoukoutian continued into the late 1930's, under the direction of German anatomist and anthropologist Franz Weidenriech. Unfortunately, excavations were ended by the outbreak of World War II. The fossils upon which Black had based his reputation were lost in 1943, and have never been recovered.

Talk Origins Archive

Hudson Bay Company
Peking Man
World War II

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This page was last updated on 10/20/2017.