Old Collection, New Research

Posted: January 30, 2012 - 10:49 , by royal
Collections, Archaeology, History, Research | Comments () | Comment

Dr. Chen Shen, Vice President, Senior Curator, Bishop White Chair of East Asian Archaeology at the ROM gives a preview of his presentation, Peking Man Revisited: A Who’s Who of Human Evolution at the upcoming ROM Research Colloquium this Friday, February 3 in the Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre. This full day of 15-minute presentations by ROM researchers is free and open to the public.

Chen Shen examines a skull fragment

Dr. Shen hold a Peking Man skull fragment at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Paleoanthropology (photo by Pei-Lin Yu)

What are you going to talk about at the colloquium this year?
I will be talking about new research on an old collection recovered from the famous Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian (old name “Chou-kou-tien) near what is now Beijing. This site was first excavated in 1927 by an international research team led by Dr. Davision Black, palaeoanthrologist from Toronto, Canada. In 1929, the team recovered an assemblage of hominid fossils, which they called Homo erectus Pekinensis, commonly known as Peking Man, a discovery that has changed the world’s perspective on human evolution.

Over nearly decade of excavations, the site yielded over tens of thousand of stone tools left by the hominids. Scientists debate whether the Peking Man was capable of hunting and processing meat by using fire at the Zhoukoudian cave.

Dr. Shen uses a microscope to examine a stone tool in a lab

Dr. Shen examine use-wear under microscope.

I am examining the collection of stone tools excavated from 1930s and 1960s by applying a new method called use-wear analysis. This technique involves examining the working edge of stone tools under a microscope for traces of use-wear. Doing so, I am able to determine how the stone tools were used and the other materials they have been in contact with. The results of my research indicate that Peking Man who lived in northern China back some 700,000 – 300,000 years ago, were smarter than we once thought.

Dr. Shen using a jackhammer

Dr.Shen excavated the Peking Man site in 2009 using a jackhammer to penetrate a large rock over Peking Man remains.

How did you first become interested in this topic?
I was trained as a field archaeologist specializing in prehistoric technology (stone tools) at University of Toronto. I began the ROM-China palaeolithic (stone age) project in 1997. My research focus and training is on the functional analysis of stone tools, examining how stone tools were made and used by prehistoric hunters and gatherers. After a number of years of collaboration, I become an overseas member of the Chinese Academic Sciences, a position given to overseas Chinese scientists taking part in high-profile research projects in China that includes access privileges for some very important collections. Since 2009, I have been the only scientist from a foreign institute to participate in Zhoukoudian re-investigations, so I am able to apply new use-wear techniques to the old collection of Zhoukoudian Peking Man material, which few people can access.

Dr. Shen discovers a tiny bone fragment

Dr. Shen finally found a tiny bone of unknown species from Peking Man site.

What part of your research do you enjoy the most?
I really enjoy the fieldwork out under the sun. I like the sweat from the work and the smells of the dirt. The best part, after days of hard and boring work of digging and screening dirt, is suddenly discovering the remains of the remote past, and holding something in my hand that makes the ultimate connection between our lives and the lives of those who lived long, long ago.

Want to hear more? Come on down to the ROM for the 33rd annual Research Colloquium on Friday, February 3, 2012. Dr. Chen Shen’s presentation is at 4pm.