DID man start walking upright on Earth two million years ago? Where did they first walk? China? Africa? Europe?
Discoveries of skulls in the Nihewan (Ni He Wan Basin in Hebei, China) which lies in the Yangyuan Plain on the banks of the Sanggan River, attracted great attention from the first decade of the 20th Century.
More than 100 years later, this place continues to be a centre of research on prehistoric organisms, humanity, geological movement and geography.
In 1970, over 500 experts from 30 countries started working there.
In 1990, a joint Chinese-US team of archaeologists began the first collaborative excavation, further increasing Nihewan’s reputation.
Nihewan contains well-preserved fossils of animals and plants from the Earth’s Quaternary Period. A 21st century museum is now attracting even more international recognition.
I had the opportunity to join the Sarawak Chinese Association of Churches’ (SCAC) History and Archive team on a recent field study trip to this famous archaeological site, the Nihewan Museum and other Hebei historical venues in North China region.
The 17-member team was drawn from the central committee and district levels, and led by Dr Wong King Sing, a senior lecturer at the Methodist Theological School.
He was assisted by the chief administrative officer and chief editor of the Methodist Message (Weilibao), Wong Meng Lei, a Sibu author and historian, specialising in Foochow migration history and Christian history.
The rest have been serving and contributing to their churches for many years in different capacities.
Hii Kai Yuen, curator of the Kwang Hua Methodist History and Archive Gallery, Sibu, told thesundaypost the trip to the Nihewan Museum and Archeaological Site was an eye opener.
“I have learnt a lot from briefings at the Museum. The whole site is awesome. I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see so many wonderful exhibitions.”
Ms Ngui Soon Chuo, head of SCAC History and Archive Department, had been planning this field trip with the others for over a year, arranging the best itinerary, booking hotels, air tickets and contacting the locals in Nihewan to ensure a smooth trip.
She told thesundaypost: “We started making arrangements in June 2017, contacting various travel agencies to charter our coach and book our hotels online.
“It was quite frustrating at times but we managed. Zhangjiakou, the main centre of our studies, happens to have the first local born Christian Chinese pastor (Pastor Yao) in the history of China,” she added.
Nihewan Basin is like an encyclopedia of ancient human activities. Relics from each significant period of primitive society can be found there.
In 1978, the important site of Xiaochangliang, rich in stone products and fossils, was discovered just east of the Basin, according to a Chinese newspaper.
Early in the morning, the chartered bus took the history buffs from Sarawak to the Nihewan Canyon for a close look at the site and the “giant face” of the Peking Man (also known as the Oriental Human Being to the Chinese) located there.
Today, the Basin has 156 relic sites. It was there in the early 20th Century that foreign missionaries and archaeologists started looking for fossils or relics to trace the origins of man and collect geological data.
The Nihewan Basin, located along the Sanggan River in Yangyuan, was once a large lake of over 9,000 sq km. Today, the Chinese government recognises it as a National Natural Reserve.
Along the way, we saw many villages displaying advertisements of stone age people, animals and arts on the village walls.
According to a friend who acted as our tour guide, the advertisements are sponsored by the local government to encourage tourism.
Fruit and other trees are grown systematically in the sandy soils, covering almost the whole Basin.
We were told the locals had made a great effort to bring life back to the soils and keep the desert away.
It’s inspirational to learn of such an endeavour, especially as we are all from a land of lush forests. How hard life must have been in the past at these semi-desert areas!
At an on-site briefing, our friend said the site was discovered by US geologist George Barbour in 1923.
Barbour invited French archaeologists Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Émile Licent to the site. And in 1935, Teilhard found a stone (flint) tool and determined the age of the site to be over a million years. The tool was the oldest known artefact at the time.
Many scientists, including Teilhard, had debated the origin of the tool — whether it might not be naturally formed.
The actual site is presently being developed to boost tourism.
The busts of four eminent archeaologists who spearheaded the excavations of the Nihewan Canyon, are located at the main entrance to the site.
The inscriptions are in English and Chinese, recognising the works of these pioneers — Terliard, Emile Licent, Barbour and CC Young.
Other important construction projects will commence in the next few years to attract more tourists.
From 1972 to 1978, more than 2,000 pieces of stone tools were discovered together with some bone tools, confirming Xiaochangliang (or Nihewan) as a paleolithic site.
Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) was discovered between 1923-27 during excavations at Zhoukoudian (Chou K’ou-tien) near Beijing.
In 2009, these fossil specimens were dated roughly 750,000 years old, and a new dating suggests they are in the range of 680,000-780,000 years old.
In 1921, other pioneers like Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and American palaeontologist Walter W Granger went to Zhoukoudian and were directed to the site at Dragon Bone Hill by local quarrymen.
Andersson recognised the deposits of quartz that were not native to the area. Realising the importance of this find, he turned to his colleague and announced: “Here is primitive man — now all we have to do is find him.”
The Nihewan Museum in Yangyuan County, Hebei Province, is the first domestic museum to exhibit relics spanning the Old Stone Age to the New Stone Age. It was officially opened only in 2012.
The Museum has an exhibition floor area of 2,145 sq metres — with a reception hall, four other halls and a temporary hall.
Indeed, it’s the biggest museum in China, exhibiting relics from the Paleolithic Age. It draws on the resources of Nihewan Lake, exhibits drawings, sculptures, relics and fossils and has the most up-to-date interactive technology.
According to an article from Google, the oldest pottery fragment ever found in north China, dating back more than 11,000 years, is displayed in Nihewan Museum.
Artefacts like these demonstrate mankind’s rise from darkness to civilisation. The tool forms discovered include side and end scrapers, notches, burins, and disc cores.
Although it’s generally more difficult to date Asian than African sites because the former typically lack volcanic materials that can be dated isotropically, the age of the tools has been magnetostratigraphically dated as 1.36 million years. This method hinges upon dated reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field.
The team from Sarawak was amazed by the high technology applied at the Museum — lightings, acoustics, displays and Wifi are all up to, if not above, par.
We were impressed by the groups of young children, led by their teachers, who asked questions and were eager to learn. Photography in the museum is allowed.
The state-of-the-art exhibitions show scenes of human beings, dating back two million to 5,000 years. Over 50,000 relics unearthed from Nihewan sites, including stone tools, fossils, skulls and teeth, are displayed.
We were also impressed by the interactive elements while watching the students practise building fires, making stone tools, using electronic touch screens – and more.
Nihewan Basin villages
The villages along the way are beginning to awake from the traditional way of life and cash in on the tourist trade.
Little shops are sprouting up, especially small eateries, offering special Hebei dishes, and car repair shops.
The local government is working hard to develop all the potential tourist attractions, offering spots for cultural relics and souvenirs.
More hotels are planned according to our friend. And being a local, he is hopeful more tourists will soon be pouring in.
He is looking forward to greater prosperity for this historical National Nature Reserve.
As we leave the Museum of Nihewan, we prayed that more people would come here to meet the Oriental Human Being face to face and experience how Stone Age people lived in this special part of China.