Richard Leakey to co-host Peking Man international symposium at Stony Brook

A casting of a skull that dates from A casting of a skull that dates from 1.8 million years ago from Africa, center, sits between two from 1 million years ago found in China, belonging to the Peking man on a table inside the Social and Behavioral Sciences building on the campus of Stony Brook University, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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World-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey will co-host a first-ever gathering of international experts to share their latest research on Peking Man, a close ancestor of humans who is believed to have lived in China between 200,000 and 800,000 years ago.

The two-day public symposium begins Thursday and will be held at Stony Brook University's Charles B. Wang Center.

Researchers from China, Europe, Africa and the United States are expected to discuss new findings out of a recently re-examined site in Zhoukoudian. The area southwest of Beijing is where fossils of the Peking Man -- among the strongest historical evidence of human evolution -- were discovered in the 1920s.

"We are related to things that were less and less like us the further back you go in time. Obviously, the Chinese fossils -- the Peking Man fossils -- were hugely important in their day," Leakey said. "At no time since the discovery of Peking Man has there been a sit-down discussion about the latest evidence out of China and the latest evidence from Africa. . . . Hopefully, this is the beginning of more scientific exchange between China and the rest of the world."

Leakey, 69, a conservationist, former Kenyan government official and son of the late archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, also is on the faculty at Stony Brook University.

He conducts research with his wife, Meave, and their adult daughter, Louise.

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The university co-founded the Turkana Basin Institute, a nonprofit field research center in a fossil-rich area of sub-Saharan Africa that the Leakeys call home. They spend about 10 weeks of the year on Long Island, renting a house in the village of Stony Brook.

The work of the Leakeys and others in that region became a key contribution in revealing that the ancestry of modern humans over millions of years originated in East Africa, before early members of our species migrated to other parts of the world, including Asia.

Richard Leakey next week will share the stage with Liu Wu, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other leading scholars on human evolution in China.

Scientists are expected to compare the differences in features of the early humans, whose remains and fossils have been found in places like Africa, China, Indonesia and the Republic of Georgia, and debate their findings on the behaviors of Peking Man.

"They certainly made stone tools. There are tens of thousands of stone tools from this site. They were hunters of both small and large animals. And there's some evidence -- and still some argument -- that they used fire," said Eric Delson, a professor of anthropology at Lehman College in the Bronx and a research associate in paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. "There may be new results that I haven't seen yet."

Delson, who will participate in the symposium, was among the first group of American scientists allowed into the Peking Man site in China in 1975.

The event is co-sponsored by The Confucius Institute at Stony Brook, a 5-year-old public nonprofit group affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China that aims to promote Chinese language and culture.

William Arens, SBU's vice provost for global affairs and director of The Confucius Institute, said he had the idea to put on the symposium about three years ago because so little is known about current research on Peking Man.

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"Everyone's heard of Peking Man, but nobody knows anything about him," Arens said. "We'll find out if there is actually anything new. Really, there's been nothing done in the West on this topic since World War II."

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