BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 25 July 1884
DIED: Beijing, China • 15 March 1934
The question was a stark, unsettling one:Did humankind evolve from apes? Just about anyone in the nineteenth century could understand the query, but none could answer it with any degree of certainty. Charles Darwin had an opinion, of course, but there were only passionate theories and no real consensus as the 1900s dawned.
The stakes were colossal: all of Western civilization was premised on the idea that God in heaven had put people on earth. So, if “your uncle was a monkey,” as many would have it, the way you looked at the world would be turned upside down.
Young Davidson Black graduated into a world grappling with this issue when he left the University of Toronto in 1909 as both a doctor of medicine and a master of arts. He found a job as an anatomy professor in Cleveland, but he quickly made it clear that he hoped to immerse himself in the most famous scientific pursuit of his time: the search for the “missing link” between humans and apes. Convinced that the earliest human beings came from China, he sought the chance to ply his trade there.
Opportunity came in 1920 when the new Peking Union Medical College hired Black as an anatomist and neurologist. This was an unlikely base for cutting-edge archaeology: the medical school was a Rockefeller charitable project, aimed at schooling “primitive” Eastern students in Western medical techniques.
It was also a career move of dubious wisdom, since Black was beginning to acquire a reputation as a teacher and a scholar. Yet to China he went, where he worked his teaching duties around attempts to convince his U.S. backers that paying him to dig up the earth in search of early human—or pre-human—remains was worthwhile.
Archaeology is painstaking work at the best of times, but with uncertain backing, Chinese political and military instability, and nothing but educated hunches, what Black found is truly breathtaking. After beginning excavations in various remote sites across China, Black concentrated his work at Chou K’ou-tien, a site atop underground caves just twenty-five miles outside of Beijing.
There, in 1927, a break¬ through occurred when a tooth was discovered. After some consideration, it was enough for Black to declare a new genus of ancient humanity, which he named Sinanthropus pekjnensis.The new discovery has greeted cautiously by the world¬ wide scientific community.
After all, could the most contro¬ versial theory about human development be confirmed by a single tooth found in a cave? The answer was no, but Black continued to investigate the site. On 1 December 1929 a nearly complete skull was found that affirmed Black’s hypothesis that a new species had been found—more man than ape, but more ape than man.
It was suddenly clear that Darwin had been on to something after all.Stories of the discovery of “Peking Man” filled the news¬ papers and sent archaeologists streaming into China. Black became an instant celebrity, but he left China only to discuss his theories before academic audiences.
He wrote extensively on the new species, and was able to put previously misunder¬ stood discoveries into a context that affirmed much of what Darwin had claimed decades earlier.Black died suddenly in 1934, still a young man but widely recognized and honoured in the annals of science.
His foresight and tenacity, the chief attributes of any gifted archaeologist, made his contribution a lasting one: there was little serious doubt after the 1930s that modern humans had evolved, in some way, from more primitive species. For that, the world was a different place.
And while it seems likely that someone, sometime would have discovered the link had Black never gone to China, it might have been well into the 1950s before it occurred. Instability in China and the Second World War interrupted excavation for at least twenty years. Certainly, without Black, and without Peking Man, the triumph of twentieth-century modernism in all fields of human endeavour would have been less complete.