by Maganjeet Kaur
A pharmacy may seem an unusual place to look for petrified fossils but palaeontologists in China used to frequent these shops to get leads on possible sites for archaeological digs. This is because farmers coming across ‘dragon’ bones would sell them to medicine shops where they were pounded into a remedy for a wide range of ailments. The palaeontologists recognised that these dragon bones were in actuality fossils of extinct animals. Peking man was discovered through such a lead.
In 1923, Otto Zdansky, an Austrian palaeontologist, unearthed a rich hoard of fossils at Chou Kou Tien (now Zhoukoudian), which is located around 50 kilometres southwest of Peking (now Beijing). The hoard consisted of at least twenty species of animals, majority of which are extinct. This impressive find was made momentous by two small teeth – a molar and a premolar. The teeth were those of a hominid (primitive man) said to have lived around 500,000 years ago (Chinese scientists later revised this to 700,000). The moniker ‘Peking man’ was coined. The importance of Peking man prompted the establishment of a formal programme to continue the exploration at Chou Kou Tien. The programme was led by the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Further excavations led to more hominid finds. In 1929, Pei Wen Chung found the first complete skull. By 1937, the collection of bones had grown to represent 40 separate individuals – men, women, and children. These individuals were all part of a single population group. Finding an array of bones which represents a single population is very rare and this further illustrates the importance of Chou Kou Tien. Peking man is not so much an individual but rather an epithet used to represent this population. Although initially given a separate genus, Sinanthropus pekinensis, Peking man is now accepted within the genus Homo with the species name Homo erectus Pekinensis.
Excavations had to be halted in 1937 because of growing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese. The PUMC had so far escaped raids by the Japanese as the institution was American; Japan was not at war with America. However, there was a growing sense of danger and in 1941 this became so pronounced that the Chinese appealed to the Director of PUMC to send Peking man to the US for safekeeping. This, the Director was reluctant to do as the understanding between PUMC and the Rockefeller Foundation was that all finds from Chou Kou Tien would remain in China. However, in August 1941, the Chinese managed to persuade the American ambassador to ship out the fossils.
Due to some unknown delay, the fossils were only prepared for shipment in mid-November 1941. They were wrapped in cotton and packed in small boxes. These boxes were then placed in two wooden boxes, similar to the footlockers used by the U.S. Marines for their personal effects. The footlockers were sent to the U.S. Marines barracks in Peking as the marines were entrusted with taking them safely out of China. The marines, though, were not aware of the contents of the footlockers or of their importance.
The marines were to rendezvous with the SS President Harrison, which had been commissioned to transport them to Manila and which was due in the port of Chingwangtao (now Qinhuangdao) on 8 December. But time had run out. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the two countries were now at war. American property and personnel were no longer inviolate. The SS President Harrison, captured by the Japanese near the mouth of the Yangstze River, never made it to Chingwangtao. The footlockers are believed to have reached Camp Holcomb, a U.S. military base in Chingwangtao. However, this camp was taken over by the Japanese on the morning of 8 December. The Peking man fossils disappeared, never to be seen again.
With the fossils missing, what is being displayed at the ongoing exhibition at Muzium Negara? The team at PUMC had photographed the fossils, made detailed drawings, and created casts. These had been safely taken out of China. The artefacts at Muzium Negara are replicas of the Peking man fossils, recreated from the casts. Also displayed at the exhibition are replicas of skulls from Upper Cave, located southwest of the Peking man site. These are skulls of humans (Homo sapiens) that lived 30,000-10,000 years ago. They were packed together with the Peking man relics and, hence, suffered the same fate. Do visit the exhibition which ends on 16 June 2018. See how Peking man looked like. Learn to differentiate Homo erectus from modern Homo sapiens. Understand the environment in which Peking man lived and the animals with which he shared this environment. Appreciate the tools they made and how they controlled fire. Learn about other archaeological sites in China, from Palaeolithic to Neolithic. Find out the earliest known location where shoes were worn.
In retrospect, it may have been better to have left the fossils in PUMC and allow the Japanese to acquire them. The Japanese were aware of these fossils and came looking for them on the morning of 8 December. Some of the Chou Kou Tien fossils of lesser importance had been left behind and the Japanese confiscated these. After the war, the Americans found these fossils at Tokyo University and returned them to China. The Japanese would not have destroyed Peking man as they had wanted the fossils for their own research and study. If taken by the Japanese, the fossils would have been, in all likelihood, eventually recovered. Over the years, some have claimed to either know the location of the fossils or to have them in their keeping. These claims were made mostly by people seeking huge rewards. The leads were followed up but did not pan out. Among the latest claims is that Peking man is buried under an asphalt parking lot in Qinhuangdao (formerly Chingwangtao).
Primary source: Shapiro, Harry L. (1976) Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure, Suffolk: Book Club Associates.