DR. DENNIS ETLER, INSTRUCTOR,

ANTHROPOLOGY DEPARTMENT, GAVILAN COLLEGE, GILROY, CA.


Your Instructor (in black T-shirt and straw hat) with the excavation work team at
an early Paleolithic site in the Nihewan basin, north-central China.


Brief Biography

As far back as I can remember I've been an observer of the primate fauna that has surrounded me since birth. I've been fascinated by the shenanigans of that large-bodied bipedal ape, known to science as Homo sapiens, that's spread throughout the habitable, and not so habitable world, and multiplied like amoeba in a petrie dish. That's probably why I've drifted in and out of Anthropology for most of my life. I've also always seemed to have had the recognition that we're part of a continuum that extends back through our ape and monkey ancestry to the primordial beginnings of life on Earth and will hopefully (or if you're of a cynical bent - despairingly) extend in unknowable ways far into the future. As the famous Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated more than half a century ago :
"My starting point is the fundamental initial fact that each one of us is perforce linked by all the material organic and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him."
The task I set out before us is to try to grasp and understand this fundamental truth by studying and reflecting upon "our place in nature." It is only by humbling ourselves before the fount of wisdom that nature provides that we can come to grips with both our insignificance and our transcendence.

Since my college years I've also had a fixation on perhaps the most complex and convoluted culture in the world - that of China. With the longest continuous literature of any nation, that extends back over 3,000 years, China until recently represented a totally autonomous and self-sufficient world unto itself. China could close its door at will and let the rest of the world pass by obliviously. But that's not the whole story by far, for throughout its history China has periodically "opened up" and absorbed influences from throughout the world, all the while maintaining its uniqueness amidst remarkable transformations. This has been for me a metaphor for the course of human evolution in general. Continuity and change are the yin and yang of life on earth as well as human cultural and social development.

These dual interests led me to eventually find a career in the study of the physical anthropology and archaeology of China. Its been a long, arduous but exhilarating journey and one that is far from over. I hope my experiences can help enliven our joint study and understanding of the human animal that we all are.


Research Activities

I have been involved in a number of projects that helped open the door to foreign participation in paleoanthropological and archeological research in China. Projects I helped initiate include the following:

1) Description and analysis of Middle Pleistocene human crania from Yunxian, Hubei, China.

I collaborated with Prof. Li Tianyuan of the Hubei Archeological Institute in the study of two virtually complete crania of H. erectus discovered at a middle Pleistocene locality in Yun county, Hubei in 1991. An article describing and interpreting these new finds written by Prof. Li and myself appeared in the June 4, 1992 issue of the British scientific journal Nature.

With Profs. Jia Lanpo and Li Tianyuan in Beijing

The Yunxian crania rank with Petralona, Broken Hill, Bodo and Sangiran 17 (don't worry you'll learn what these are in class) in their completeness and significance. My participation in the study of this material was the first direct collaboration since the 1930s between a Chinese and foreign paleoanthropologist in the description and analysis of new archaic fossil hominid remains from China. The timely publication of these important new specimens in Nature generated world-wide interest and focused attention on the rich fossil human record of China.

2) Joint Chinese-American study and excavation of early Paleolithic sites in the Nihewan basin of Hebei.

I was actively involved in developing the project's research design, getting the project started and bringing it to fruition. Prof. J. Desmond Clark of the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley was the principal investigator on the US side while Prof. Jia Lanpo of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Academia Sinica was his Chinese counterpart. This project, was a multi-year, multifaceted endeavor incorporating excavation and study of perhaps the earliest Paleolithic sites in Asia. We trained young Chinese archeologists in lithic analysis, faunal analysis and taphonomy through a series of on-the-spot workshops and formal seminars. These joint excavations were particularly significant because they represented the first direct collaboration between Chinese and foreign archeologists since the 1930s. The project was the first ever joint archeological excavation formally approved by the Cultural Relics Bureau of the Chinese State Council.

With Profs. N. Toth, K. Schick, J.D. Clark and Wei Qi at the early
Paleolithic site of Donggutuo in the Nihewan basin of Hebei province, north-central China.

3) Joint Chinese-American study of new fossil hominoid remains from the Yuanmou basin, Yunnan.

I helped develop an exchange program between the Yunnan Provincial Museum (YPM) and the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies (LHES) at Berkeley which allowed us to study Pliocene hominoid remains recovered at sites in the Yuanmou basin. Hominoids recovered to date from Yuanmou include a well-preserved juvenile hominoid face and palate as well as numerous upper and lower jaw fragments with in situ dentition and over 1000 isolated teeth of every dental type, dating from approximately 5 million years ago. One result of this study has been the reappraisal of fossils purported to be the earliest human remains from China. A comparison of this material with fossil ape specimens from Yuanmou unequivocally demonstrate their ape-like rather than human affinities.

4) Center for the Study of Chinese Prehistory.

Currently I am working with Chinese colleagues to develop a means to facilitate academic exchange and joint research between Chinese and foreign archeologists, anthropologists and pre-historians. Please click on the link above to visit the Center's website.

5) Recent Publications (in PDF format)

  1. New Middle Pleistocene hominid crania from Yunxian in China. With Li Tianyuan. 1992. Nature (London) 357:404-407.
  2. The fossil evidence for human evolution in Asia. 1996. Annual Review of Anthropology. 25:275-301.
  3. Longgupo: Early Homo colonizer or late Pliocene Lufengpithecus survivor in south China? With T.L. Crummett, M.N. Wolpoff. 2001. Human Evolution 16(1): 1-12.
  4. Homo erectus in China, Human Ancestor or Evolutionary Dead-end? 2004. Athena Review 4(1): 37-50.