This Week in History


Birth of Davidson Black

For the week of Monday July 20, 1998

On July 25, 1884, Davidson Black was born in Toronto, Ontario. Black developed an interest in physical anthropology, especially the study of early humankind from fossils. In 1927, he discovered fossil remains near Peking (now Beijing) in China. The fossils, which were nicknamed the "Peking Man," brought anthropologists a step closer to explaining the evolution of the human race.

Davidson Black (1884-1934), ca 1925

Davidson Black (1884-1934), ca 1925
© Ashley & Crippen

In 1906, Black graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in anthropology and medicine. He then moved to the United States and became a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Black returned to Toronto in 1917 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, treating returned soldiers in Canadian hospitals. In 1918, Black moved to China to teach at the American-funded Peking Union Medical College (PUMC). In 1921, he became the chair of the PUMC's Anatomy Department.

Black believed that humankind's most immediate ancestors originated from Asia. He set out to prove this through a series of archaeological digs conducted in central Asia. By 1927, his search for early humans led him to a cave at Zhoukoudian, where Dr. Otto Zdansky had recently discovered the tooth of a creature resembling a human being. At this site, Black unearthed the "Peking Man," in the form of various skeletal fragments, including skull, limb, teeth and jawbones. The fossils were dated as being between 300 000 and 500 000 years old! Black identified a new species, which he believed was the last pre-human phase of our evolution.

Mrs. Nevitt Maybee, Davidson Black's daugther, at the Zoukhoudian World Heritage Site (1996)

Mrs. Nevitt Maybee, Davidson Black's daughter,
at the Zoukhoudian World Heritage Site (1996)

© Courtesy of Mrs. Nevitt Maybee

Black received international fame for his discovery. In 1930, he was one of the first Canadians elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain. He continued to work on the Peking Man project until he died in 1934. In 1941, the fossils were shipped to the United States so that they would not be destroyed during the Japanese occupation of China. However, they were lost along the way. Luckily, Black had created casts of the skeletal fragments, which scientists can still study today.

Not everyone agrees with Black's interpretation of the fossil remains. Some people believe that the fossils do not represent a primitive human being, but are instead the remains of an ape. Despite this debate, Davidson Black is highly respected for his contribution to theories of evolution. To honour these contributions, Davidson Black is recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada with a plaque in Toronto. In 1987, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee recognized the significance of the Peking Man discovery as an exceptional reminder of pre-human Asian society. Zhoukoudian, the site of the 1927 archaeological dig, is a World Heritage Site.

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