What I did Over my Spring Break

By Bernard Wood
March 15, 2012

Let me begin with a confession. Although I have consulted Franz Weidenreich’s Sinanthropus monographs hundreds of times and cited them liberally, I have never read any of them from cover-to-cover. I had always meant to do so, but rather like answering email, there always seems to be something more urgent (but less important) to capture one’s attention. If you count the relatively short 50-page monograph on the endocranial casts, there are five monographs in the series. Two, those on the mandible and endocranial morphology, were published in 1936, the one on the dentition was published in 1937, the one of the extremity bones in 1941, and his magnum opus on the crania in 1943. For reasons I will not bore you with I decided to start with The extremity bones of Sinanthropus pekinensis; Weidenreich does not italicize the Linnaean binomial in the title, so nor shall I. I have collected my copies of the monographs over the years; some are bound and some are still in their soft covers. When I pulled my rather dilapidated copy of the 1941 monograph off the shelf, it reminded me how generous some of one’s colleagues are. My copy has David Pilbeam’s name on it; he had two copies, and he gave one to me.

There were very few extremity bones attributed to Sinanthropus pekinensis; seven femora, some of them very scrappy, two humeri, the shaft of a clavicle, and a lunate bone. For good reasons most of the 1941 monograph is devoted to the femora. Reading the monograph from cover-to-cover instead of dipping in and out of it, reminded me of how well folk like Weidenreich could write and just how much he liked to let off steam. In the section germanically-entitled Introductory, Weidenreich spends nearly three pages venting (in a mostly polite way) his frustration with Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Osman Hill, and Solly Zuckerman, who, he claims, had willfully misunderstood his use of Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus. Two years previously, the researchers responsible for analyzing the two collections had suggested that the Indonesian and Chinese hypodigms were “related to each other … in the same way as two different races of present mankind” (von Koenigswald and Weidenreich 1939, p. 928) and a year later Weidenreich had formally proposed the two hypodigms should be merged in a single genus and species as Homo erectus pekinensis and Homo erectus javanensis, respectively (Weidenreich 1940). Weidenreich was vexed because he felt that the authors who were complaining that the material did not deserve to be in separate genera had not read his papers. This all sounds very familiar!

Later in the monograph (pp. 44-50), Weidenreich makes a good case for the Trinil 3 femur not belonging with the Trinil 2 calotte and he complains about Le Gros Clark’s reluctance to recognize that the platymeria seen in the Sinanthropus femora has some taxonomic valency. To my shame I had never before ventured to the end of the text, and when I did, I was surprised to read that the final section “VII. Appendix” was entitled “Character and causes of the fragmentariness of the extremity bones”. Yes, Weidenreich devotes the last three pages to a discussion of what today we would call taphonomy!

As anyone familiar with this series already knows, the figures are exquisite, and Weidenreich is generous enough to identify the draftsman, Ch’en Chih-nung, and the photographer, Tsao Lin-wu.

I look forward to reading through the other four monographs in the same way. Dipping in and out of monographs is inevitable, especially in an era when attention spans are counted in minutes, if not seconds, but you sure miss a good deal when you do.


von Koenigswald, G.H.R., and Weidenreich, F.H. (1939) The relationship between Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus. Nature 144: 926–9.

Weidenreich, F. (1941) ‘The extremity bones of Sinanthropus pekinensis’. Palæontologia Sinica, Whole Series No. 116, New Series D, No. 5: 1-151.

Weidenreich, F. (1940) Some problems dealing with ancient man. American Anthropologist 42(3): 375–83.