Lavender-laced, with craggy cliff-faces and winding paths, Tianyuan mountain provides a vivid backdrop for the village below. Locals view it with pride and consider it part of their identity, but superstitions and legends ensure it is treated with more than a touch of suspicion. Three years ago a local businesswoman, Tian Xiumei, saw opportunities on the mountain to develop a small forestry, but she too had an uneasy feeling. Before making a decision on leasing the mountain from the local government, she called in a feng shui expert and asked him for a spiritual assessment. When he came down from the mountain he was breathless and excited. 'There are incredibly positive forces at work up there,' he told her. 'That is the place you should work and make your home. This place is full of hidden treasures.' Tian was thankful for the seal of approval, and although she didn't pay much attention to the talk of treasure, it has taken only a couple of years for her to discover just how right he was. The village of Huangshandian, 70 kilometres southwest of Beijing, is a poor, dusty place, whose 1,200 inhabitants make a living mostly in quarries and cement factories. It stands six kilometres from the village of Zhoukoudian, a place mainlanders call 'the cradle of civilisation', and where Peking Man - half-ape, half-man - made his home from 500,000 to 200,000 years ago. Caves there were opened in 1921 and hominid fossils were discovered in 1929. For palaeontologists it was the evolutionary stepping stone they had been looking for: the fossils provided evidence of a species of early human, later given the name Homo erectus, that differed from the apes in physical characteristics and cranial capacity. The community that had lived in Zhoukoudian had engaged in creative behaviour, developed cultural aspects of their society, controlled fire and hunted large mammals. The gap between apes and modern man, Homo sapiens, had been bridged. The area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987. But in Huangshandian, with its muffled explosions from the quarries and long trains heaped high with slate and limestone, there is little talk of palaeontology. 'People here just try to do what they can to build a comfortable living,' says Tian. 'It's not like the city. It's simple living; many people are very poor and simply struggle every day to provide the basics.' Behind her is a row of tiny, crumbling shacks, some of which house three generations of families. None has running water; the bathroom is a cornfield. By spring 2001, however, Tian, now 50, was building up her mountain forestry business. She needed another water source for her saplings, so she asked her brother, Tian Xiucheng, to scour the mountain. On his search, he came across a small opening and found that the rocks around the entrance were damp. The space was small but there was room for him to squeeze through. Fearing he might be wriggling into a snake pit, he took with him Little Tiger, his Alsatian dog. 'I was worried because it was spring and the snakes would be coming out of hibernation,' he says. 'With the dog I worked my way in and squeezed through. There were a couple of points where I really thought I was going to get stuck. After about seven or eight metres I could see where the cave opened up.' Tian saw stalactites: another encouraging sign that there might be water. He began to dig with a pick and shovel. He found no sign of water - but a few metres down he came across bone shards. 'I didn't think much about them at first and just tossed them to one side and kept looking for water, which I was beginning to think was hopeless. But as I was digging I started to wonder what the bones might be,' he adds. After a few hours, tired and disappointed, Tian worked his way back out of the cave and returned down the mountain. 'While we were eating dinner I had to tell my sister I had not found any water, but I also told her about all the bones, and we wondered what they were and how old they might be.' They began to get excited at the possibility of a link between their cave and the Peking Man site and called their lawyer and family friend, Dong Tongyuan, to tell him the news. 'Well, of course, it was something that had the potential to change all our lives,' Dong says. 'If it were true, there could be huge development opportunities for the mountain. So we decided to do a full search in the cave and see what else we could find.' Over a period of several months, the three of them went back to the cave and dug it out. After a few months digging, they had collected more than several hundred remains and fragments, and Dong and Tian travelled to Beijing to present them to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They had been somewhat discouraged by the fact that most were shards of bone - but that was precisely what excited Professor Tong Haowen at the academy. 'The bones had been shattered, which led me to believe that the animals had been crushed by someone who was preparing them to be eaten,' he says. Tests showed the bones were all from animals - including deer, porcupine, rabbits and a type of civet cat - and from around 25,000 years ago. 'There were no human bones found at that stage,' Tong continues, 'but I was absolutely sure prehistoric man had lived in the cave. It was very exciting, as I guessed these animals had been hunted and brought back to the cave. This cave had to have been an ancient human settlement.' In the spring of 2002 a team of researchers from the academy conducted a major excavation at the site, and in August this year they found a human jawbone with teeth, and bones from a shoulder, leg, arm and spine. Archaeologists identified them as the remains of an elderly adult male, also an estimated 25,000 years old. They also found the remains of a total of 26 animals in the cave, mostly deer and porcupine. 'The find adds an important, fresh dimension to the Peking Man site,' Professor Tong says. The original Peking Man site, which yielded remains of 40 specimens of Homo erectus, is celebrated as a major step in the theory of human origin and evolution. But the site also offered up several other interesting finds from more recent communities of Homo sapiens that lived in the area from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. Human and animal remains, as well as cultural relics, were found at a total of 26 localities in the Zhoukoudian area. Most of the important discoveries were made in the 1920s and 30s along with the original Peking Man finds, and since years of additional searches had yielded no major developments, archaeological interest in the area had long been on the wane - until Tianyuan mountain offered up its bounty. 'In recent decades there have been no significant finds in the area and all excavation work has been suspended,' says Tong. 'But this latest find in Tianyuan mountain, which we now call the 27th locality, gives us great hope that the area might still be housing hidden prehistoric treasures. The fact that the fossils were found six kilometres away from the cluster of original finds shows that the community spread out, so who knows what else might be still there in the wider area?' He is leading a research programme to compare the newly discovered remains with those found in Zhoukoudian to establish exactly where they fit into the ancient family tree. In Huangshandian there is a palpable air of excitement at the prospect of the new find luring tourists and much-needed income to the area. Zhang Jingang, Communist Party secretary of the village committee, can hardly believe his luck. 'It will be a wonderful boost for tourism in our region,' he says, adding that plans had already been drawn up to begin developing the road network. 'Then we can get involved in developing the mountain.' Tian and his sister also have plans to develop tourist facilities at the new site, but say they are restricted by a lack of capital. The local government and the academy of sciences gave them and their lawyer 10,000 yuan each to reward their efforts in discovering the site, but they feel they are entitled to more. 'We did a huge amount of work in and around the cave and built a road up to it to improve access,' Tian says. 'Also, now the area around the cave is protected so we can't use it for forestry or farming so we have asked the local government to give us compensation of 150,000 yuan. We are still in discussions.' Tian has drawn up the business plan in his head. 'We plan to offer visitors to the cave a true taste of rural life in China,' he says, outlining his somewhat unusual approach. They intend to cordon off an area of the mountain where chickens and rabbits would run wild. Visitors will be given bows and arrows and be invited to hunt down their dinner in the enclosed area. They would also be able to hook some food at a fishpond currently under construction. 'People from the cities will love that experience, and they will immediately realise how much better free-range food tastes. They will really appreciate the relaxed atmosphere here,' Tian says, flicking the lids off a couple of bottles of Yanjing beer with a wooden chopstick. He and his sister are currently looking for investors. Villagers believe the mountain is a mystical place, home to the supernatural, and it is the focus of a host of rumours and legends, including a recent one about a giant, round light that makes a regular appearance in the sky. 'It is a magical place,' Tian Xiumei says. 'How else could you explain the light?' The phenomenon she is referring to is apparently 'a shimmering ball of light that rises from behind the mountain, always in the same place, just above the cave where the bones were found. Nobody in the village ever saw it before the discovery of the ancient site, but since it was opened 'the light' has appeared five times.' More than 40 villagers claim to have seen the celestial lightshow, most of them on a few occasions. 'It is the same every time,' says Zhang Junquan, a worker from a local limestone factory. 'There's a round, soft, white hue with a red tinge, it rises above the cave and slowly makes an arc in the sky, leaving behind a luminous trail. After forming a semi-circle, it hangs on the horizon for a few seconds and then sweeps back around to where it originally appeared.' The villagers all describe it in the same way, and they all say the only thing that varies is the length of time it appears for. 'We are sure it is connected to the cave,' Tian says. 'It was first seen a couple of days after my brother got into the cave, and we last saw it a couple of days after the first human bones were discovered. That's no coincidence, it's a wonderful omen. I believe the spirit that was trapped in there is now celebrating its release with a great show.' Officials from the meteorological association say their records did not show anything unusual in the area on the nights the light reportedly appeared. 'It might be a lightning ball. But even that would only last a few minutes,' one official says. 'I don't know, but I don't think it's anything supernatural.' Locals disagree. 'That mountain is a very special place,' says Wang Zheng, a 71-year-old villager who has lived in its shadow all his life. 'People have been saying it was haunted for years,' he says, and with a wide-eyed expression tells a story of two local herdsmen who were minding sheep one night several years ago on the mountain right beside where the bones were found. 'Suddenly the two of them came charging down the mountain, screaming so loudly. They were shouting words that we could not understand, they were uncontrollable. They just kept running around, waving their hands in the air with a terrified look on their faces, and they kept screaming out words in a language none of us had ever heard before.' There are other stories that made people very wary of the mountain, Wang says. A few years later, for example, villagers saw a spiral of flames spin up from the ground in front of a graveyard on the mountain, he says. 'It started as a small flame that was on the ground and spun round and round and round. Then it got bigger and spiralled up and up. It spun around for a while and then shot off into the sky. The following day a few of the braver folk plucked up the courage to go up and have a look at the graveyard, but there was nothing there, nothing to be seen, no scorch marks on the ground, nothing.' On a crisp afternoon in September this year, about five metres from the spot were the first Peking Man skull was found, a geologist was gingerly sidling along an edge of a cliff face thick with bushes. He stumbled on some loose stones which rolled down to the ground several metres below, near where dozens of tourists were gathered for a tour of Peking Man's home. 'Am I seeing things or is that an old bone?' One tourist shouted out, pointing to the fresh pile of rubble on the ground. In the middle of a few stones lay a very old-looking, straight bone, about 20cms long. The tourist picked the fossil up in amazement and passed it around his group. When it was brought to the attention of three local guides, who had no special palaeontology or archaeology training, they shrugged their shoulders. 'I don't know, but I'd guess it's an animal, though, not a human. You can keep it as a souvenir if you like,' one told the tourists. They opted instead to hand it into the management office. 'These guides have no idea what that bone might be,' said the tourist who saw it. 'Maybe it is a priceless find.' Although not priceless, said museum researchers later, it was about 10,000 years old, from an as yet undetermined animal. But Tong at the Chinese Academy of Sciences shakes his head in despair when told of the incident. 'It just shows there is still much to be discovered there. And so much work still to be done to educate people about the cultural importance of these sites. There have been great improvements in the management of the Peking Man site in recent years, but we clearly need to see more.' The maintenance and development of the sites in the area in recent years have been highly controversial issues. A couple of years ago, experts warned that the Peking Man site was in danger of being destroyed by pollution, mismanagement and a chronic lack of funding. The site fell into such a state of disrepair in the late 90s that Unesco threatened to put it on the list of endangered sites, a move that would have humiliated mainland officials. The caves were overrun with weeds and bushes, and some looked as if they were about to collapse. Staff running the site were paid only a fraction of their salaries and the adjacent museum was closed down for several months because no funding was available to carry out essential repairs. In the wake of extensive negative media coverage, the Beijing municipal government took control of the site and invested some sorely needed resources. Things have since been spruced up somewhat: paths are being built linking the caves, informative signs have been erected and the museum is open again. 'But we need to increase the awareness of everyone living in and visiting the area about the need to fully protect this area, which is widely considered to be most intact Homo erectus dwelling in the world,' Tong says. Large areas of the original site have still not been explored, due largely to a lack of funding for excavations, but Tong believes the latest find on Tianyuan mountain opens a much wider scope for exploration. But time is not on the archaeologists' side, he warns, with the caves' very existence under threat. There are dozens of quarries and cement factories around the area of Zhoukoudian that leave the air full of an acrid and corrosive dust as machines rip giant craters out of the mountainsides. Tong says he has raised his concerns with the local government but it is difficult for them to close down the factories. 'They employ so many people in the area. If they close, how would they earn a living?' he asks. 'Politically, this has to handled slowly and carefully.' In the meantime, the destruction continues: 'If a factory owner comes across a cave with ancient skeletons, they will immediately destroy it and they will not tell scientists or the authorities about what they found. They do not want their business interfered with.' Sharing the concerns as he plans his tourist enclave at Tianyuan mountain is Tian Xiucheng, who fears that the relentless blasting and mining is robbing the area of many significant remains. 'They are blowing up hillsides and caves just like the one I found the fossils in,' he laments. 'They just want the stone; they are not on the lookout for fossils or relics.'