A new tooth of Peking Man

On the 21st of March, 2011, Martin Kundrat from the Ahlberg Lab at Uppsala University discovered a hominid fossil tooth in material from Zhoukoudian southwest of Beijing. It was an important scientific and historic discovery.

Zhoukoudian is a famous palaeontological site known as "Dragon Bone Hill". It is a series of caves, full of fossil bones of animals that lived in the area during a long time period. It was here, in 1921, that Uppsala palaeontologist Otto Zdansky found a cheek tooth from an early human. This was the first discovery of the so-called Peking Man, Homo erectus.

The excavations at Zhoukoudian were part of a Sino-Swedish collaboration directed by Johan Gunnar Andersson, a Swedish geologist hired by the Geological Survey of China. Fossil material was sent to Professor Carl Wiman at Uppsala University to be studied and described by him and his collaborators. It was in this material Otto Zdansky eventually found and described three teeth of Peking Man.

From 1928 through 1937 Zhoukoudian yielded rich remains of Peking Man (more than 40 individuals) including five skulls. In 1941, this enormous success soon after dramatically turned into the biggest loss in the history of palaeoanthropology, when the whole collection disappeared in the turmoil of WWII as it was about to be shipped to the United States for safe keeping.

Of original material only the three teeth in the collections in Uppsala remained (Foto 1).

In 2011, after a hiatus of almost 60 years, Martin Kundrat and the curator at the Museum of Evolution Jan Ove R. Ebbestad were moved by curiosity to check the contents of around 40 crates left from excavations in the 1920s and stored in the basement of the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University. The crates were moved to the museum premises to be opened. Three of the crates were found to bear the letters ZKD (acronym for Zhoukoudian) and were the first to be investigated. In one of these Martin Kundrat made the startling and historical discovery.

The tooth was found wrapped in tissue but crushed into 13 pieces but Professor Liu Wu from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing could confirm that it was an upper right canine of Peking Man.

The teeth in the collections at the Museum of Evolution represent the first four specimens of Peking Man ever collected and the only remains from the original and historically important excavations at Zhoukoudian. The site is today on the World Heritage List.

The museum conservator Pär Eriksson reassembled the tooth and it has since been studied by Dr Martin Kundrat and Professor Per Ahlberg (both Ahlberg Lab, Uppsala University), and Professor Liu Wu and Professor Tong Haowen (IVPP). The find has been published in the journal Acta Anthropologica Sinica.

Kundrat, M., Wu L., Ebbestad, J.O.R., Ahlberg, P. & Haowen T. 2015: New Tooth of Peking Man Recognized in Museum at Uppsala University. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 34, 131136.

 Canine from Peking Man

The new tooth of Peking Man, a right upper canine, discovered 2011 in the collections of the Museum of Evolution.

 Canine from Peking Man

The tooth discovered by Martin Kundrat. A, B. The tooth as it looked when it was unwrapped. C. Close up of the crown. D. All the pieces lined up before beeing reassambled.

 Three teeth of Peking Man

The three original teeth discovered and described by Otto Zdansky.

 The Chinese and Swedish researchers behind the discovery

The members from the Ahlberg Lab and IVPP just after the identity of the tooth has been confirmed. From left to right Professor Lu Wu, Professor Tong Haowen, Professor Per Ahlberg, Dr Martin Kundrat.