The hunt for the Peking Man – the ancient human fossils found in Peking (now Beijing) China – started with a monetary quest, was interrupted by war, and eventually ended in mystery. Considered the most important evidence of early man’s evolution, we’ve searched far and wide for these 10 facts, which chronicle the most fascinating aspects of the quest to unearth the Peking Man.
10. A first molar and the Peking pharmacy.
Well-aware that Chinese apothecaries harbored priceless prehistoric fossils that had yet to be uncovered, German physician K.A. Haberer traveled to Peking China in 1899. He collected about 90 mammal types, which ranged from several million year old antelopes to saber-toothed tigers and hyenas. He may not have known it at the time, but among his impressive collection was perhaps the most profound a human-like molar. It would take almost 20 more years before the true significance of the tooth would be realized. He was unaware at the time, but he stumbled upon the one of the world’s most ancient human fossils.
9. Teeth and Dragon Bone Hill.
Impressed by Harber’s discovery, Swedish geologist, Jonan Andersson flew to Peking as well. He began digging in a town near Peking, called Chou Kou Tien (otherwise known as “Dragon Bone Hill”) and excavated a pair of molars that were later identified as also being human-like. The molars were believed to be around 2 million years old. The discovery intrigued the scientific community, and eventually led to a systematic survey of Chou Kou Tien in the summer of 1927 – the largest excavation of human ancestry at the time. Archeologists would continue the large-scale hunt for 14 years.
8. Sinanthropus pekinesis and the hunt begins.
During the archeological hunt, Swedish paleontologist Birgir Bohlin discovered a human-like molar (similar to those found earlier). Experts examined the molar and found that it was likely several million years old and probably came from a new and separate genus of man. It was renowned Canadian physician and geologist, Dr Davidson Black who studied the fossil and named it Sinanthropus pekinensis, which was Latin for “Chinese man from Peking”.
7. A new genus of man.
During the digging, archeologists uncovered new parts of the Peking man: a portion of his lower jaw, several teeth and fragments of his skull. This was the first time they were able to get a sense of the appearance of early man. Moreover, further analysis provided even more evidence that these fossilized remains were that of a new genus of man — distinct from modern humans.
6. The search for the skull.
By the year 1929, the determined paleontologists continued to dig in Chou Kou Tien. They had hit a massive layer of black fossilized clay. It was incredibly difficult to penetrate. But after weeks of trying, they finally shattered the rough layer. Peering through the hole, they could see numerous animal bones lying many feet below. Despite freezing weather, the director of the site, Pei Wenzhong, grappled onto ropes so he could push his way down into the crater. The space was so narrow, Pei had one hand holding a candle flame, while the other sorted through the bones. It was then he discovered what eventually made news headlines all over the world: a human skull.
5. Constructing a clearer picture.
A few years later, in October 1936, the Chou Kou Tien paleontologists uncovered a wealth of material. These included a complete jaw, two more skulls, teeth and bones. They speculated that the remains represented about 40 people — the largest collection ever uncovered of a single ancient human population.
Now, scientists could piece together a clear picture of how the ancient population may have appeared. They were likely short (between 4 feet, 8 inches and 5 feet, 1 inch tall). They had protruding eyebrows, tucked-in chins, and broad noses. They likely weighed about 100 pounds and walked upright.
4. Fossils in bank vaults.
Just as scientists were beginning to get a clearer picture of what the Peking Man was like, Japan invaded China in 1937, bringing Chou Kou Tien excavation to a dramatic halt. Scientists were nervous about the fate of the fossils as rumours fled that the Japanese were interested in acquiring their artifacts. The paleontologists collectively decided to secure the fossils temporarily inside a bank vault in Peking.
3. And the Peking man’s great escape.
Growing fear and tension eventually led the scientists to decide that the fossils would be most safe if stored temporarily in the US. But at some point during this transfer, all the Peking fossils went missing. It was the fall of 1941 when the most important evidence of early man’s evolution was lost. After being packed into two large wooden crates, several witnesses say the crates were kept in Peking for a few days. It was three weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor when Dr Trevor Bowen — the college administrator — drove the crates to the U.S. Legation in Peking. But the crates never made it onto the ship bound for the US.
2. The mysterious lady New Yorker.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s when the search for the missing fossils took an unusual turn. Intent on solving the case, a wealthy Chicago broker named Christopher Janus offered $5000 reward for the recovery of the Peking Man. He received a letter from an anonymous woman, claiming she had the fossils, but demanded their meeting would be clandestine. She was a widow, claiming her deceased husband, a Marine during World War II, returned home after the war with a box containing the valuable fossils, she said were the Peking Man. She showed Janus a picture of the fossils, but demanded $500,000 to completely hand over the crates. Experts who analyzed the image were unsure if those were indeed the true ones of Peking Man. Regardless, the scientists would never be able to find out more from the woman as she mysteriously disappeared.
1. A note about his disappearance.
Like all mystery stories, there are many theories as to the fate of the Peking Man fossils. Were they buried for safe keeping in Chou Kou Tien to be dug up after the war? Did the Japanese steal them from the Marines during the outbreak of the war between Japan and US? Indeed the theories are many, but none are proven true. The unfortunate fact remains that we will never know what really happened to the invaluable fossils of Peking Man.
Your Turn: What do you think happened to the Peking man? Are there other intriguing aspects of this story that we didn’t mention here? Let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.