National Geographic explorer Lee Berger needs your help to solve the mystery of the lost Peking Man fossils. From Lee:
Until we find the actual Peking man fossils, what happened to them will remain one of the most enduring mysteries of modern science. While there are casts of many of the fossils that were lost, there is no substitute for the originals, and if we could recover even fragments of them, modern technology would assist us in gleaming invaluable insight into these important remains. Through the years there have been many stories of the whereabouts of the Peking Man fossils, all so far leading to dead ends. And there is no guarantee that our current investigation is on the right track. Were the fossils seen by Richard Bowen back in 1947. If they were, then we might get lucky, and work at the site could reveal fragments of the fossils. But we know from eyewitness accounts in 1941 that there was more than one box containing fossils loaded onto a US military truck, and there is of course no certainty that the box Mr. Bowen saw that night were the actual Peking man fossils. And that’s where you can help. If you have heard of any leads that we might follow, or additions to Mr. Bowens’ story, or even if you have an interesting story about the Peking man fossils, I and my colleagues would love to hear them. And I can assure you my colleagues and I will follow up on legitimate leads, because that’s the nature of exploration and discovery – following every lead – no matter how slight a chance. If you have a clue, story, or even an idea, you can email us at “email@example.com.” From time to time I will post the more interesting leads, stories, and the results of our investigations, as we continue to try and solve this mystery, and hopefully come closer to finding the lost fossils from Peking. —Lee Berger
Equal to solving the “whodunit” of the Piltdown Hoax, the loss of the Peking man fossils remains perhaps the greatest paleoanthropological mystery in the history of the Science. Lost in 1941 as World War II broke out in the Pacific, the fossils were last seen being loaded in two crates onto trucks by US Marines, destined for safekeeping in the United States. They were then lost to history. Despite one of the most intensive searches in the history of archaeological sciences, including substantial rewards being offered. No verifiable sign of the whereabouts of these important historical objects has emerged. In this paper, Lee Berger, Liu Wu and investigate what may be the last sighting of the missing Peking Man Fossils at Camp Holcomb, Qinhaungdao China, in 1947. The bones were dug up while the young marine was surrounded by 250,000 Chinese soldiers and used as a machine gun rest on a night shortly before his capture. Berger and his colleagues have investigated the claim and found it to be perhaps the most credible account of the last known sighting of these important fossils. Investigations of the claim led the team to Qinhaungdao, where the location where the crate was reburied was located under a parking lot in a heavily built up area. If these were the fossils they may be lost to history, or they may still be buried under a few feet of asphalt in this Chinese port city.
The so-called Peking Man fossils were discovered during the 1930’s at the Zhoukoudian fossil bearing deposit. Initially attributed to Sinanthropus pekingensis, they were later put into the species Homo erectus. At the outbreak of WWII hostilities in the Far East, the fossils vanished, and have never been recovered. This is despite intense and dedicated searches by a large number of scientists and amateurs that has continued for more than six decades. Numerous reports of the whereabouts of the missing fossils have all proven to be dead ends, yet the importance of this collection has warranted continued investigation into their whereabouts.
The various scenarios surrounding the loss of the important Peking man fossils in 1941, at the beginning of World War II, is well documented and only the casts remain of these important fossils, the casts having been taken out of China by Franz Weidenreich in August of that same year. The story, as history records it, documents that sometime in the Fall of 1941, just before the formal outbreak of hostilities in the Far East, Chinese workers, possibly under the supervision of Ms. Clair Taschdjian (nee Hirschberg), secretary to Franz Weidenreich, prepared with Chinese assistants two large wooden footlockers or crates, built to hold the most important of the Peking Man fossils, with the stated intent of turning them over to the United States Military for safe transport to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The fossils were reportedly secured separately in cotton and held with packing tape and placed inside of these crates. Once loaded, these two crates purportedly held the most important of the Zhoukoudian fossils and artefacts, including the fragmentary remains of forty individual hominins.
An eyewitness account by Ms. Mary Ferguson, an employee of the Union Medical College in Peking, as well as autobiographical accounts by Ms. Taschdjian, suggest that the crates had been placed on a U.S. Marine vehicle for removal to the Marine Barracks in Peking, for eventual safe transport to the United States. It was apparently intended that the crates and the fossils be transported to the US aboard the transport ship the President Harrison, from the port of Qinhaungdao, near the Marine base of Camp Holcomb. Apparently the fossils were to travel from the Marine barracks in Peking, via rail to the port, where they would be placed upon the cargo ship. But the SS President Harrison encountered Japanese warships as war broke out, ran aground and never reached Qinhaungdao. The exact disposition of the crates containing the fossils has never been established, so that from their exit through the gates of the Peking Union Medical College, the last reliable sighting, they simply vanished.
The Search for the Peking Man Fossils
Despite numerous attempts to locate the wooden footlockers and the fossils they contained by scientists and journalists, no verifiable sign of the fossils, or the crates that contained them, has yet been recorded. Rumours of their whereabouts range from their having been sunk in a Japanese or American vessel, buried by soldiers near the Peking Union Medical College, ground up for traditional medicine, or transported to either Japan or America. Nonetheless, various significant attempts have been made to locate these fossils, including substantial rewards offered for their return by both Americans and the Chinese government.
Richard Bowen and a Mysterious Crate
In 2010 Lee Berger received an email from a Mr. Paul Bowen, the son of a former US marine, Richard M. Bowen, whom had been stationed in both Tiensten and Chinwangtao (today known as Qinhaungdao), China after the end of World War II. Mr. Bowen Snr. Had been a corporal attached to the First Pioneer Battalion of the First Marine Division in Tientsin and was one of the last soldiers out of China during the 1947 movement of the Communist Chinese in Northern China and subsequent evacuation of foreign military personnel.
The critical aspect of the initial email read as follows:
“My father was a Marine in China after WWII and he thinks he discovered bones of the missing Peking Man at a Marine base in China in 1947. He knows where these are buried there having dug them up and reburied them while under siege in Chinwangtao. I showed him the site from Google earth and it appears untouched. They may still be there buried in the boxes. Is this anything you would be interested in? If not do you have any idea who may be? My father is in his 80s now. He created a map and write up. I have tried writing to a few Chinese universities but have never heard back. Can you point me to anyone who would be interested? The reason he remembers this so well is the night he dug this box up, he was digging a new fox hole for his machine gun and his group of 40 Marines was surrounded by 250,000 members of the Communist 8th Route Army who had asked the to surrender that day. I have his map and military records proving he was there.
Paul” (pers. comm. between Paul Bowen and the author, April 12th 2010)
After encouragement to elaborate on this story, in further correspondence, Mr. Bowen recounted the remarkable events which led to his father believing that he had dug up one of the footlockers or crates containing the remains of the missing Peking man fossils. The event occurred during a siege of Camp Holcomb during the retreat of the US Marines in 1947.
“In China I served with the First Pioneer Battalion of the First Marine Division in Tientsin and Peiping. In the spring of 1947 our battalion was being split up – one company was to be sent to Chinwangtao while the rest would be sent to Guam. They wanted volunteers to be in a rear guard unit at Chinwangtao. I volunteered. Our company went to Chinwangtao. The camp was right on the beach. It was a desolate spot with few amenities. The place was a wilderness camp out. It reminded me of the Cape Cod seashore with its dunes. It had a mess tent Quonset huts, a drinking place with no ice, just warm tonic beer and Planters peanuts. You could not go anywhere or leave the place. Your world was that camp and that was it 24 hours a day. The camp at that time was the front line in the Nationalist-Communist Civil War. Some of the Marines who were previously there went to an ice house for ice for their beer and were taken prisoner by the Communists.
Day after day the war there was getting hotter and closer. Peitaiho, south of us, was mostly overrun. Missionaries came into our camp to tell us that 45 of them were trapped there. Lt..Col. E.M.Williams, on his own, sent one half of the men on a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) to rescue them. The rescue of the 45 was successful as well as the baby who was born during the rescue coming back on the ship.
The city of Chinwangtao was now under siege by the Communist 8th Route Army with Nationalist gun-boats shelling them over our camp. One day a group of them asked us to surrender, saying that they had 250,000 men. To prove the point, that night thousands of fires were lit by them on the adjacent hills and high ground. It looked like Christmas time.
From that time on we started digging fox holes at night and napping during the day. I had a 30 caliber machine gun and our lieutenant would, from time to time, change our crossfire. In this nightly digging process we dug a lot of holes. In one of them we found a box that was full of bones. At night it gave us a little scare and we filled in that hole and dug another. Shortly after this we evacuated the area, went back to Tientsin, and then back to the United States with the First Marine Division colors.”
(pers. Account of Mr. Richard M. Bowen Sr. to his son Paul Bowen, recounted in an email to the authors)
In further correspondence with Berger, Paul Bowen elaborated on questions regarding the incident and location of the footlocker, additionally providing a hand drawn map and photo of the building:
“The camp he was at was Camp Holcomb near the Manchurian boarder. This is the last place the bones were known to be. The box he found he describes as being of US Marine footlocker size and it was full of small bones. I am attaching the map he drew and a photo of the barracks he references in the map. The rough area can be seen on Google Earth at latitude 39°53’59.48″N longitude 119°32’51.32″E. It is beach dunes. The key would be to find a local there who could accurately place the barracks and TT Wongs, which was the bar the Marines used. The only thing I ask is that if anything comes of this that my father gets some credit. He is in his 80s now. He has talked of this for decades. Around 2 years ago we had him write this up but haven’t found anyone to send it to so you are the 1st.” (pers. correspondence with Paul Bowen around April 15th 2010)
Was this the last sighting of the Peking Man Fossils?
After verifying the identity of Mr. Bowen and the legitimacy of the events as described through the United States Government, the authors began to investigate whether this story, as recounted, was plausible and whether the possibility of further investigation was feasible, with the obvious goal of recovering the footlocker, or at least identifying the possible location of the footlocker described by Mr. Bowen. Through their research into the matter, they felt that Richard Bowen Snr.’s story could be true, and the missing fossils might have made their way to Camp Holcomb at the beginning of the Pacific conflict in WWII. After investigation, they concluded that a plausible scenario is that the footlockers containing the Peking man fossils were first loaded onto trucks and then onto a train bound for the coastal town of Chinqwangtao, as this was not only one of the major deep water ports where American and other foreign ships were evacuating refugees, but also that this was the logical terminus of a coastal bound military train, as Chinwangtao is the closest port to the east of Peking. As mentioned, credible eyewitness accounts from the period of the Peking Man fossils loss suggest that the fossils were destined for the cargo ship President Harrison, which never arrived at the port. Another persistent rumour often repeated in studies of the whereabouts of the missing fossils is that two Swiss Officers saw the footlockers unloaded in Chinwangtao into a “warehouse”. There is, in addition to this account, a detailed account of two U.S. Marines – Sergeants Snider and Jackson – moving the fossils by rail in wooden footlockers to Camp Holcomb on December 4th, 1941. In fact, of the myriad of accounts, whether the fossils are suggested to be in metal footlockers or wooden crates, most have them destined for, or arriving at Camp Holcomb. Thus it is highly plausible that the fossils made it as far as this city and a logical point of unloading from a Peking military train would be the rail end at Camp Holcomb, clearly marked on military maps of the camp. Furthermore, Camp Holcomb (earlier it had been known as Camp Burrowes) was the base assigned to guard the port of Chinwangtao and was occupied by the United States Marines until the outbreak of war, being then occupied for the duration by the Imperial Japanese Army.
The search for the location
It therefore seems possible that the footlockers did indeed make their way safely from the Medical College, to the Marine Barracks in Peking and then by train to the rail end at Camp Holcomb, but not in time to be loaded on a ship to evacuate, humans possibly taking priority in what must have been a chaotic evacuation from China as war broke out across the Pacific. It is also possible that in the chaos that must have been under-way at this evacuation point, the officer (or non-commissioned officer) in charge of the fossils, might have chosen to bury them near one of the few permanent structures in the camp (potentially the brick enlisted men’s barracks described by Mr. Bowen) for later retrieval, only no one survived the war to tell of this story. Thus, the potential that Richard Bowen’s story might be true was deemed worth investigating.
With a National Geographic Society Missions Grant and support from the Chinese Government, Berger, liu and Wu went to the port of Qinhaungdao to see if they could find the location described by Mr. Bowen and perhaps recover the fossils. In late November of 2010, after preparations and formalities, in Beijing, the team departed for Qinhaungdao to attempt to locate the exact position and hopefully interview individuals whom may know of the location of the stone building where the incident occurred. It was soon established that Camp Holcomb was disappointingly close to the highly developed portion of the docks. A locally recognized expert on the harbour, a Mr. Wang Qingpu (surname Wang), had been a child at the time of the US occupation of Camp Holcomb after the war. Remarkably, Mr. Wang not only remembered the US Marines as friendly to him, but recognized the image of the stone barracks described by Richard Bowen, which he thought he could locate. It did look, however, as if the site may be within the port itself and the area highly developed.
After visiting the area identified by Mr. Wang and the Cultural Heritage officers, it became clear that region was indeed heavily industrialized and few original structures remained. The area where Mr. Wang remembered the stone barracks to be was presently occupied by some very old looking warehouses, but there was encouragingly some apparently clear land behind fences and in some areas). The investigators were informed that all of the development had occurred in the late 1970’s and after, and that the area had been largely untouched until that time. On the ground surveys of the area also allowed the team to triangulate a probable location for the site where the event took place in 1947. The team has created three possible “best guesses” as to the position of the stone barracks, all within an approximate 200 meter by 200 meter area. The area of most probable location had been built over by warehouses and parking lots belonging presently to the Hebei Provincial Food Export and Import Company (translated from Chinese). One possible location sits underneath a large warehouse, but the remaining locations all fall under a large parking area and roadway, giving some hope that if the excavation for the foundations of these roads and lots was not too deep, the footlockers may have survived. This is of course only a slim possibility. Furthermore, the exact location of the stone barracks in question is impossible to determine, so the actual area of potential discovery spans approximately a radius of 200 meters. One interesting observation is that the ‘best guess” area noted above is on a slight rise, approximately 6 to 10 meters above the area described as the position of the old army barracks. This fits well with the description by Richard Bowen of the building sitting on a slightly raised area of harder ground, with the footlocker being buried some 50 to 100 feet southwest of the building in soft sand. If this is the case, and this raised area is the same one as described, the area of most probable location of the footlocker is under asphalt and not under the foundation of a warehouse. Again, if this is indeed the location, then there is a slim possibility that the footlocker and its contents miraculously survived construction in the area. It was not practical on this expedition to consider excavation of the area.
Were these the missing Peking Man fossils?
The account by Mr. Bowen represents one of the more credible accounts of the possible dispensation of the original Peking Man fossils. The circumstances of the boxed fossils disappearance as accounted in numerous historical and contemporary accounts do not preclude Mr. Bowen’s account that they found their way to being buried next to the enlisted men’s barracks at Camp Holcomb shortly after their departure from Peking and prior to the Japanese occupation of the camp in 1942. Were these the actual fossils? It is difficult to tell, but the timing and placement certainly make it a not unlikely possibility that this was one of the original cases. One question that must of course be asked is why did Mr. Bowen Snr. not recount this story at an earlier date. In personal communication with his sons, it is suggested that Mr. Bowen was unaware of the loss of the Peking Man fossils until recently, and was only made aware of the search for the missing fossils by his son during the recording of a recounting of his life just prior to s first contacting the senior author. When asked why Mr. Bowen Sr. had such a clear recollection of the event more than 60 years after the fact, it was the particularly historic nature of the event unfolding (the siege of the camp), as well as the fact that Mr. Bowen’s usual machine gunner had been wounded, and was replaced by an individual whom had been involved in an unfortunate boot-camp training incident which Mr. Bowen Snr. had never forgotten, finding himself under fire with a person he did not trust (Paul Bowen, pers. comm.). The team therefore felt that there is no reason to suspect that Mr. Bowen’s account is not a factual reconstruction of a discovery of, and subsequent reburial of one of the cases containing the original Peking Man fossils. Unfortunately, given the nature of the construction and development in the area where the box would have been reburied by Mr. Bowen and his fellow soldier, the likelihood that they were destroyed is high.
There is, however, one small glimmer of hope for the possible recovery of the box described by Mr. Bowen, should it have survived the construction that has gone on in the area. During the course of this work, it was established that the area in question is due to undergo development in the near future and “large buildings” are to be erected on the site. This of course offers the opportunity that the roads and warehouses will be excavated, and that if the footlocker noted by Mr. Bowen has somehow miraculously survived, it or its contents might be uncovered during the course of this excavation. Local authorities of the Cultural Heritage Office have committed to the team that they will monitor any excavations in the area closely for any remnants of the footlockers or fossils, and it is on this slim chance that the recovery of the bones Richard Bowen Snr. observed in 1947 rests. The situation will be monitored closely if and when such construction and excavation begins.
Q and A
What are the Peking Man Fossils?
The so-called Peking Man fossils were discovered during the 1930’s at the Zhoukoudian fossil bearing deposit. Initially attributed to Sinanthropus pekingensis, they were later put into the species Homo erectus. The lost fossils represent the largest collection of Homo erectus fossils known. Although the exact contents of the two missing crates is not known, they are thought to contain the remains of more than 40 individuals.
Why are these fossils important?
The fossils represent the largest and best sample of Homo erectus ever discovered and a significant percentage of the total number of fossils of this species known. They are considered national treasures in China and world treasures among palaeontologists and archaeologists. Their re-discovery would be of immense value to science.
How old are the fossils?
Deposits at the Zhoukoudian site in China date to around 750,000 to approximately 250,000 years in age.
When were they lost?
The fossils officially vanish a few days before December 7h , 1941. Every account of their whereabouts after that moment is anecdotal.
Is Richard Bowen still alive?
Mr. Bowen is alive and well and living on the East Coast of the United States.
Have there been other supposed sightings of the fossils since their loss?
There have been numerous possible sightings of the Peking Man fossils, some at the time of their disappearance and a few afterwards. These include a mysterious case in America of a woman offering them for reward on the basis of a supposed photograph of the fossil. The various accounts of possible sightings are elaborated on in the additional readings provided below.
Will they dig up the parking lot for the fossils?
At this stage it is not practical to dig up the entire possible area of the discovery, but we will monitor the planned developments in the area and will monitor any excavations that occur which might expose buried fossils.
Is there further reading on the loss of the Peking Man fossils?
There is a substantial popular and scientific literature on Peking Man fossils. Below is a small selection:
ACZEL, Amir D. (2007) The Jesuit and the Skull. New York, Riverhead Books.
BARBOUR, G. (1965) In the field with Teilhard de Chardin. New York, Herder and Herder.
BOAZ, N.T. and CIOCHON, R.L. (2004) Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice Age Saga of homo erectus. New York, Oxford University Press.
CIOCHON, R.L. and EAVES-JOHNSON, K.L. (2008) The Peking Man Mystery – Stranger than Fiction: in The Peking Man Fossils are Missing by Claire Taschdjian. New York, Felony and Mayhem Press. Pp. 311-324.
HOOD, D. (1964) Davidson Black: A biography. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
JANUS, C.G. and William Basher (1975) The search for Peking Man. New York, Macmillan
LANPO, J. and HUANG, W. (1990) The story of Peking man: from archaeology to mystery. Translated by Yin Zhinqui. New York, Oxford University Press.
READER, J. (1981) Missing Links: The hunt for earliest man. Boston, Little, Brown.
SHAPIRO, H.L. (1974) Peking Man is Missing. New York, Simon and Schuster
WANG, Q. (2000) Port of Qinhuandao. Qinhuangdao, People Communications Publishing House, China.
This report was originally published in the South African Journal of Science:
Investigation of a credible report by a US Marine on the location of the missing Peking Man fossils
Published in the South African Journal of Science, March 22 2012
Authors & Affiliations:
Lee R. Berger
Institute for Human Evolution, PalaeoSciences Centre, School of GeoSciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, China