Peking Man is an assemblage of Homo erectus fossilized bones found on Dragon Bone Hill, amidst the Zhoudoukian cave systems, thirty miles (fifty kilometers) southwest of Peking, China, from 1921 to 1936. Dragon Bone Hill was called such because local people knew it as a place to find the fossils they called dragon bones—an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Excavation by Swedish geologist Johan Andersson and American paleontologist Walter Granger began in 1921 after the pair was directed to Dragon Bone Hill by local men as a place where old bones could be found. Two molars were the first human fossils discovered. As more scientists became involved, more fossils were uncovered, including a jaw and skull fragments. Excavation temporarily ceased after 1936 when hostilities between China and Japan made work dangerous. In 1941, the bones were packed up and sent away for safekeeping until China’s war with Japan was over, but they mysteriously disappeared before they left China. Despite ongoing attempts to find them, the original Peking Man bones have not been recovered. Luckily, paleontologist Franz Weidenreich made casts of the original bones and paleontologist Jia Lanpo copied the site drawings, preserving important evidence that would otherwise be entirely lost.
Dragon Bone Hill is a very important archaeological and geological site because it has very deep stratigraphy, orlayers, which help scientists to accurately date their finds. The site is particularly significant for the Paleolithic, or Stone, Age. The fossils of Peking Man come from more than forty different people, most of them women and children, and are believed to be 750,000 years old, making these remains part of the Lower Paleolithic, or Old Stone, Age. Scientists theorize that Homo erectus is the direct ancestor of modern humans, although how Homo erectus transitioned to Homo sapiens is hotly debated, with Peking Man being of central importance to those theories because of its distance from Africa, where hominids originated.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes place, in part, during these years of discovery and war southwest of Peking. Precious Auntie, daughter of a bonesetter, knows of a secret place containing human and ‘‘dragon’’ bones but she will not tell the scientists because she believes her ancestors reside there and it would bring restless ghosts and bad luck if they were disturbed. LuLing lives in an orphanage on Dragon Bone Hill and marries a Chinese geologist who works there. Periodic excavations resumed in 1949, after the war. Additional pieces of Peking Man have been recovered, as well as 17,000 stone artifacts, which include stone tools and tool-making debris. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared this archaeological site a World Heritage Site in 1987, confirming its importance to humanity.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Amy Tan, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.