Mystery of the Lost Peking Man Fossils Solved?

A new investigation of the famous fossils that went missing during World War II suggests that the bones may be buried beneath a parking lot in China

A replica of one of the Peking Man skulls
A replica of one of the Peking Man skulls Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Last December, I described one of the long-standing mysteries in the history of human evolution: the missing Peking Man fossils. Now a new lead has brought anthropologists to the fossils’ possible location. The only problem is that the spot is covered by an asphalt parking lot.

The Peking Man fossils are a set of 200 Homo erectus fossils excavated from China’s Zhoukoudian cave site during the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, Chinese authorities packed up the fossils to send them to the United States for safekeeping. The bones were supposed to be transported to a U.S. Marine base and then shipped off. Instead, the fossils vanished, and no one really knows what happened to them.

A break in the case came in April 2010. Paul Bowen, the son of former U.S. Marine Richard Bowen, emailed paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Bowen claimed his father had dug up a box of bones while stationed in the port city of  Qinhuangdao (formerly called Chingwangtao) in 1947, during China’s Nationalist–Communist Civil War. In his email, the younger Bowen describes what his father told him:

Day after day the war there was getting hotter and closer. Peitaiho, south of us, was mostly overrun. … 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.

Berger used Bowen’s story to investigate further. Working with Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu, both of China’s Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, Berger went to Qinhuangdao in November 2010 to locate the site of the U.S. Marine base where Bowen was stationed. The area is now an industrial hub with numerous warehouses. The most likely site where Bowen found the bones, which the team located based on Bowen’s descriptions and with the help of a local historian, is now a large parking lot, the researchers report in the South African Journal of Science. (National Geographic has pictures of what the area looks like today.)

Berger and his colleagues did not excavate the area. But if the bones were buried there, and if they survived the parking lot’s construction, researchers may  find them one day. The area is expected to undergo a large redevelopment sometime soon. And, Berger and his colleagues say, local officials at the Cultural Heritage Office have agreed to monitor any excavations in case the bones turn up.