Time Travel in Lantian
By Neil McKinnon
We were lost, the driver was mad, the temperature was forty-five degrees, and my ass hurt. I leaned forward to absorb the next pothole. Unanchored, my sodden ache of a body went up as the Toyota roof came down. Lightning flashed in excruciating symmetry with pain waves in my skull. I hung on and bounced back into the seat. Nauseous and dizzy, I blocked out the others and thought of why we were here.
We had been lazing in the restaurant in Lanzhou, munching on bao-zhe and washing it down with Qinghai beer. “The project’s going well, I think we’ll finish early.” Michael smiled through his black beard and his eyes sparkled as he went on. “It would be a shame to be in Northwest China and not visit Lantian. We can catch the midnight train to Xi’an and then rent a car.” He continued, but I hadn’t heard. My mind was already sixteen hours down the track.
Xi’an, in the center of Shaanxi Province, is the historic and prehistoric Mecca of China. For over two thousand years it served as the imperial capital, starting with the Western Zhou Dynasty and ending with the Tang Dynasty one thousand years ago. Camel trains, carrying silk and other exotic cargo for the courts of Roman Caesars, started here and followed the old Silk Road across Asia.
Nearby geographically and more distant in time is Banpo, a seven-thousand-year-old village, where the Neolithic Yangshao people settled and developed agriculture. Farther east, near Mount Lishan, is the terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin. Even closer in time and distance is HuaQing Hot Springs where Chiang Kaishek, minus his false teeth, was captured in his pajamas and forced to ally with the communists in 1936.
But the ultimate in time travel is to visit Lantian, not the home of a new dynasty or culture, but one of the few known cradles of humankind. In 1963 geologists discovered a Homo erectus mandible near Chenjiawo village. A year later a skullcap with facial bones was found at Gongwangling Hill in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Both sites are in Lantian County near Xi’an. Both yielded quartzite choppers, scrapers, and other stone tools along with the remains of extinct sabre tooth tiger, stegodon, and giant macaque.
Lantian Man is more than 1.6 million years old. But he is an impostor, a fake—for it has now been shown that Lantian Man is a woman. In fact, both Lantian men are women!
We had arrived the previous evening. After sixteen hours the train jerked to a stop and a prolonged hiss outside the open window announced the end of our journey. I pulled myself out of my reverie, rubbed soot from my eyes, and peered through hazy clouds of escaping steam. Ancient city walls loomed alongside the track reflected in the murky water of the Wei River. Solemn, dirty-faced kids, looking for treasure, crawled through the train windows as we dragged our packs to the front of the car and stepped down... into Xi’an... and back into time.
Now we are about to visit our very beginnings. We know Gongwangling is about 40 miles southeast of the city and decide to ask directions along the way. This isn’t easy. We soon discover we are being piloted by China’s answer to Mario Andretti—a very bad-humored Mario Andretti.
Two harrowing hours, a headache, and one traffic ticket later we climb Gongwangling Hill. We’re welcomed by Mr. Gao, a thin man whose cheeks wrinkle as he gives us a big grin and introduces himself as the site director. He leads us into the museum. Soon we are staring past massive brow ridges into cavernous eyes.
The skull is low and wide and the bones are thick. No dainty doll, this lady is sturdy and stable. “Homo erectus meet Homo sapiens. Our Lady of Lantian, it’s us, your misbegotten sons and daughters.” My companions speak in whispers. To look across a million years is very intense.
We climb to the site and from high on Gongwangling gaze across lush landscape patterned in dark green and yellow squares punctuated by leafy trees and toadstool haystacks. Lantian Lady had looked across this land. She had stood here above pine forest now turned to canola and cereal—then had slept an eternity surrounded by soft red clay.
“What was here,” I wondered, “that allowed her to survive? Why here? What other secrets do the Qinling mountains hold? Where did she come from? Did she have children? Had she known love, fear, warmth, hunger? How did she die?” A thousand questions and few answers.
What is Michael saying? “Homo erectus had fire.”
Wow! Fire and cooking, one million years ago! His voice is hushed. I understand. He too has dreamed of this place. The answers are here all around us. If we treat them right the stones will tell us. The skull and the dirt itself will tell us. Is this lady God or Prometheus? Are we on Mount Olympus or Last Stand Hill? Locked beneath our feet are all the answers.
I return to look at the bumpy brown cranium. This woman had survived. She was still surviving. She’d spread her genes throughout the world and now her offspring had returned to pay homage.
Soon it is time to leave. A grinning Mr. Gao brings us tea and cigarettes. He’s very proud of his site which has attracted so many from so far. I take his picture to send back.
Chenjiawo is dusty and dirty brown. Dry clay flows from streets into walls; from walls into houses. Noisy chickens scratch the clay. An old lady with tiny feet stirs a large pot in the middle of the street. The dust hangs in the heat mixing with flies and the smell of burning dung. Sheep and pigs and goats split apart as we inch up a transporter trail in our overheated van bullied on by our overheated driver. Both he and the van will kill us going down. But we don’t care. We are in Eden, where it all started. We are too excited to notice dirt. The town’s beauty is in its past, not its present; in its setting, not its houses.
Two boys run ahead. They’re not afraid of crazy foreigners. Others have been here before us. One boy is serious, in yellow t-shirt and shorts; the other grinning and outgoing. Both have brush cuts and curious, open faces. They run ahead to show us the place that has made this tiny village known in Moscow, Phoenix, and Calgary. They are puffed up and proud that we have come to their village from Jianada. Excited white teeth flash and chatter nonstop as they clamber down the red clay of the cliff.
They are right to be proud. This clay the village stands on, and is built of, is that used by God to create Eve. The Sunday School story pales beside this earthy lady who has bridged the genus gap en route from ape.
We pause at the top of a 100-foot cliff, red clay hanging from our heels and ponder our infinite past. Then sliding and falling, we scramble down, back beyond the timelessness of the village to our beginnings. The Lady stood here; made tools here; cooked food here; had children here; hunted here; perhaps went hungry here; and eventually died here. Then like her sister at Gongwangling she had rested for eons in the reddish brown clay.
The dry clay preserves and produces. It is the essence of civilization. From it grew grass which fed the animal which fed the Lady. From it now grows green-hued cereals, yellow rape, and white-flowered potatoes. In a sense she’d sown herself in this fertile land and in a million-year growing season produced a vibrant, thriving, self-sustaining crop—all of us.
I hear a shout. High above me a yellow t-shirt is waving from today, beckoning us back to the village. Later, as we silently inch down the trail to the main road, even our driver is subdued. We have all been touched by something sacred.
There is a connection, a common bond through the centuries. Each of us gives thanks to the Lady for enduring. Our debt is large. It must be acknowledged but can never be repaid. How can we repay our own existence? Perhaps we can only protect tomorrow for our children’s children and make a world where they too, centuries in the future, will feel the link to the past and so connect with us who go before.
Neil was born at a young age in an old house that is now a funeral parlor. He grew up, in Canada, to the height of six feet where he stayed until he was fifty, at which point he started to shrink. His books enjoyed brief success until sales dropped off after his mother’s garage got full. Quick to speak, people often leave the room while he’s still talking. He’s very competitive and once won two cans of fried chicken in a fishing derby.
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