wangfujing paleolithic museumIdle shoppers in Wangfujing's luxurious Oriental Plaza could perhaps do with reminding that their hunter-gatherer forbearers are but a short distance away: 12 meters below, in fact. The sight of a pack of naked caveman hunting a wild bull in the forest may look an unlikely vision in the seemly environs of Beijing's leading tourist shopping area; nonetheless that's exactly what the Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum is offering to anyone who strays across its threshold.

The unlikely location for such an offbeat museum – which may have spurred more than a few puzzled tourists to wonder "What the holy hell?" – has a logical explanation. The relics of several 25,000-year-old Chinese ancestors were discovered in 1996 by a Peking University student during the construction of Oriental Plaza. Instead of slinging the bones in a skip or using them to support the foundations, the developers called a halt to allow proper archeologists to take a look. The construction project for Oriental Plaza paused for eight months while excavations were completed, and in 2001, the area was presented by Li Jiacheng, the original investor, to the Dongcheng government, hence the incongruous "Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum" sign amidst the usual marblefest of a glitzy mall.

Back in the day

"Dark carbon ashes, burned bones and stones, Stone Age tools and animal fossils." A typical Wangfujing shopping list? Perhaps, if you're Li Qiang, deputy director of the museum, who describes some of the objects found in the original excavation. The existence of so many cutting tools led the original experts to conclude that the area now known as Oriental Plaza was once a hunting ground for Paleolithic man (hence the hunting tableaux).

The tools also allowed them to date the remains: "Only siliceous rock could be sharpened," Li said, "which shows our ancestors had developed the ability to identify and choose the right texture for their stone tools."

The museum essentially consists of photographs taken from the Oriental Plaza dig, alongside the relics themselves. The centerpiece is a 50 square meter patch of soil that marks the spot of the original discovery (the original area was around 890 meters but the museum has wisely chosen to keep only a representative sample). You can see that the dig was divided into two parts, with separate discoveries being found at a depth of 11 and 12 metres, representing a thousand year gap in activity.

The old Beijinger?

The significance of all this (and the reason they bothered to make such a fuss) is that the discovery of these relics has puzzled historians and archaeologists. Until now, the oldest Peking Man's remains were housed at the Zhoukoudian site museum, and the materials found here bear a close resemblance to the ones there. Given that these people are presumed to have lived in caves, lacking the ability to construct their own shelter, the question is, what are these Yan mountain dwellers doing out here on the plains? Because it sure isn't shopping.

Li's theory is that the land was somewhat more bountiful for PaleolithicMan back in the Stone Ages. A large mural depicts a group ambushing a fierce-looking bull near a glade, while a nearby party is getting down to some fishing in the river. In the background, another pair is in hot pursuit of some deer. Further paintings depict the habitat as lush, verdant and teeming with rabbits, stag and oxen – ideal hunting ground, in other words."This is Wangfujing(meaning Place of the palace well) in the old days," Li theorized. "The river is the secondary branch of the ancient Yong Ding River… the half-desert half-pasture area is full of abundant animals that drew these so-called cavemen here in the good season."

There is no question humans were active here, but it appears the exposed plains were a temporary campsite for hunting parties, rather than a long-term abode for Peking Man. While it appears the painters often lost themselves in whimsy when recreating their vision of Peking Man's lifestyle, their portrayals of him living alongside what Li claims is the "ancient Beijing ostrich" appears to have some credence – the museum's the eggshell fragments to prove it.

The museum is good for a half-hour visit but the amateurish paintings and shabby plaster replicas of Peking Man are amusing for mostly the wrong reasons. Volunteer guides of the Beijing Museum of Natural History Gao Yuan, a student, and Chen Xiaowei, a high school teacher, seem to acknowledge this. "I realize that for ordinary people with little knowledge about all this, a place where only stones and bone flakes can be found might be tedious," Gao told us. As an enthusiast of natural history, though, he hopes the museum will improve enough to encourage regular folk to take an interest. Certainly, one hopes the very nature of its location will continue to draw double takes and puzzled inquiries from those out picking up their luxury goods.

The Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum

Address: 1P3 Oriental Plaza, No. 1 East Chang'an Avenue, Dongcheng District

Hours: 10 am – 3:40 pm (weekdays); 10 am – 6:30pm (weekends)




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