German-Jewish physical anthropologist and anatomist Franz Weidenreich was known for his evaluation and interpretation of Sinanthropus pekinensis. Born in Endenkoben, Germany, Weidenreich developed an interest in skeletal structure and bipedal locomotion. Educated at several universities, Weidenreich received his MD from the University of Strasbourg (1899) and remained to teach anatomy. Shortly after graduation, he was appointed as an anatomy professor for the University of Heidelberg (1919). With developing interest in anthropology, Weidenreich left his position at Heidelberg for anthropology at the University of Frankfurt (1928-1933). Because of Germany’s growing discontent toward citizens of Jewish descent, he left in 1934 for the United States. His association with the University of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History would fall short of his accomplishments at the Peking Union Medical College.
As Director of the Cenozoic Laboratory of the Peking Union Medical College, Weidenreich continued the research on Sinanthropus pekinensis established by both previous directors Davidson Black and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The greatest contribution was his detailed analysis of the fossil material recovered from the Western Hills of Zhoukoudian. Though the original fossils were missing, lost, or destroyed during World War II, Weidenreich’s monographs (1936— 1941) based on the evidence collected serve as a critical point in the process of reconstructing hominid phylogeny. Weidenreich continued to lecture and published articles and books based on his perspective. The most popular was his publication Apes, Giants, and Man (1946).
With each new hominid discovery, the exact relationship among these forms to the origin of Homo sapiens becomes a point of inquiry. In this intellectual spirit, Weidenreich addressed this perspective concern with Sinanthropus, Pithecanthropus, and Neandertal man, of which his terms Archanthropine and Paleoanthropine applies. According to Weidenreich, the hominid evidence must be considered holistically, regardless of time, extinction, or proximate distance. Morphological unity is a key concept. When considering these hominid forms, including their variations, there appears to be a gradual evolutionary line without any serious gaps or multilinear directions. This is due to the idea of the primitivity of traits. However, the key and essential traits that are considered primitive can be erroneous or misleading. Nevertheless, Weidenreich, as with Teilhard de Chardin, believed that the representatives of both Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus (as reflected by the Neandertals) should be designated as Homo based upon these morphological similarities and burial habits. Because there is a fluid motion from one phase of human evolution to the next (discounting any sudden appearances), these phases in human evolution have experienced taxonomical extinction but continue to exist in their “extended” relatives.
In Weidenreich’s publication Apes, Giants, and Man (1964), gradualism, as seen in Darwinian evolution, depicts this process of blending of physical characteristics (for example, phenotypic expressions). Hominid morphology indicates 10 evolutionary phases of Hominidae. Of these 10 phases, five phases are Archanthropinae (most primitive), three Paleoanthropine, and two Neoanthropinae. The Archanthropinae consists of Gigantopithecus, Meganthropus, Pithecanthropus (erectus, robustus, and soloensis), Sinanthropus, and Java forms found in East Asia. Paleoanthropinae are represented by Rhodesian man, Neandertalians, and Weimar-Ehringsdorf of Africa, Asia, and Europe. The last phase, the Neoanthropinae phase, is found in the Pacific islands, Asia, Africa, and Europe. They are represented by various Wodjak group, Choukoutien group, Boskos, and Cro-Magnon groups; along with their modern groups of Australian, Mongoloid, African, and Eurasian, respectively. These three phases represents the descent of modern Homo. When these phases are contrasted with the four groups (horizontal differentiation)—for example, Australian, Mongoloid, African, and Eurasian—the evidence illustrates the incompleteness of the fossil record. This fact withstanding, the morphological evidence would suggest that each group evolved in different parts of the world or regionally and at different rates.
Although a gradualist perspective of evolution may not be a taxonomical issue, Weidenreich’s interpretation of fossil evidence is a source of debate. As depicted in his phases of evolution, each hominid, though extinct, had its basis on the main stem of the phylogenetic tree. According to the available evidence, Weidenreich places both Pithencanthropus and Sinanthropus as the most primitive Neandertal group. From this stage, the next phase of human evolution is seen by Homo solonesis. This phase is directly descended from the previous Pithencanthropus/ Sinanthropus phase. The remaining Neandertals represented by Spy and Ebringdorf specimens are an indication of variation. Proceeding from these phases, intermediary Homo and fossil Homo (represented by the Piltdown “specimen” prior to its exposure as a hoax) would lead directly, although regionally, to modern Homo. Based upon this view, Weidenreich stated that Pithecanthropus erectus should be called Homo erectus javanesis, Sinanthropus pekinesis should be called Homo erectus pekinensis, and Homo soloensis should be classified as Homo Neandertalensis soloensis.
The preceding interpretation of the evidence, for Weidenreich, allows for the transitional phase from Neandertals to modern Homo via regional evolution. Differing rates of evolution would allow for the conformity of the evidence. Even when considering the evolution of the human braincase, the known fossil stages all fall into the same pattern of expansion and direction. However, not all segments of Neandertal phase fit into this pattern, specifically the European Neandertals. The descent of modern Europeans from European Neandertals becomes highly questionable. Though not totally ruling regional descent improbable, evidence suggested that the latest stage of Homo sapiens Europeans probably developed in West or central Asia and migrated to Europe during the last Glacial Period. For Weidenreich, the exact nature or fate of European Neandertals becomes moot. The variation seen within this regional scheme does not discount direct descent but allows for various racial braches of human evolution to develop. His depiction of the regional descent of Pithecanthropus to Homo soloensis to Cohuna Man and ending with Australian serves to illustrate such a view.
Though regionalism has gained acceptance, variable rates of evolution with racial connotations have severe philosophical implications. It would be certain that Weidenreich did not have this racial implication in mind when developing his theoretical framework. For Weidenreich, human variations, although based on a common ancestor, had developed under different environmental factors that influenced their respective development. From this categorization, it becomes possible that the term of “advanced” within a cultural context fosters the social construct that we deem as being race. Race, as a loaded term, is erroneous and misleading. Today, our species is held as one species with variations at the phenotypic level. Race is a social construct. This view withstanding, the contributions made by Weidenreich are substantial. His eye for detail and leadership had secured information concerning one part of human evolution that would have been lost. Weidenreich’s unique interpretation of the evidence and reconstructing of hominid phylogeny gives anthropology one of many views concerning human origin. Although direct descent in regional evolution is problematic at best, including various independent forms of parallel evolution, Weidenreich’s evaluation of the characteristics that are Homo serves as a point of critical reflection. It is his spirit de corps that allows the evidence to determine our defining quality: an evolving ontology without predestined teleology.
- Birx, H. J. (1988). Human evolution. Springfield, MO: Charles C Thomas.
- Rightmire, G. P. (1988). Homo erectus and later middle Pleistocene humans. Annual Review of Anthropology, 17, 239-259.
- Weidenreich, F. (1937). The relationship of Sinanthropus Pekinensis to Pithecanthropus, Javanthropus, and Rodesian man. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 67, 51-65.
- Weidenreich, F. (1940). Some problems dealing with ancient man. American Anthropologist, 42(3), 375-383.
- Weidenreich, F. (1943). The “Neandertal man” and the ancestors of “Homo sapiens.” American Anthropologist, 45(1), 39-48.
- Weidenreich, F. (1947). Facts and speculation concerning the origin of Homo sapiens. American Anthropologist,, 49(2), 187-203.