The Peking Man and the US Marine

By Wits Communications

30 March 2012

The missing Peking Man fossils remain one of the greatest palaeo-anthropological mysteries in the history of the science. In a paper published in the South African Journal of Science, Professor Lee Berger (PhD 1994) investigates what may have been the last sighting of these fossils, which disappeared in 1941 when World War II reached the Pacific.

The Peking Man fossils, originally discovered between 1929 and 1937 near Beijing (formerly Peking) in China, are hugely significant to the study of evolution as they proved that Homo erectus evolved from the ape.

These original fossils were last seen being loaded in two crates onto trucks by US Marines, destined for safekeeping in the United States. Then they were lost to history.

Despite one of the most intensive searches in the history of archaeological sciences, including the offer of substantial rewards, no verifiable sign of the whereabouts of these important historical objects has emerged. Until now.

Berger is the Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the Institute of Human Evolution at Wits. He and his co-authors Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu, from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, China, investigate what may have been the last sighting of the missing Peking Man fossils.

Berger’s paper, entitled Investigation of a credible report by a US Marine on the location of the missing Peking Man fossils tells the story a former US marine, Richard M. Bowen, who thinks he might have seen the Peking Man fossils at a Marine Base in China in1947.

In the paper, Berger, Liu and Wu investigate Bowen’s story of the missing Peking man fossils at Camp Holcomb, Qinhaungdao China, in 1947.

Investigations of the claim led the research team to Qinhaungdao, where the location of the crate’s burial is now under a parking lot in a heavily built up area.

“The account by Richard Bowen represents one of the more credible accounts of the possible dispensation of the original Peking Man fossils,” concludes Berger in the paper. The team has established that the area in question is due for development soon. Local authorities of the Cultural Heritage Office have agreed to monitor the excavation for traces of Bowen’s footlocker or the fossils. “It is on this slim chance that the recovery of the bones Richard Bowen observed in 1947 rests.” 

  • To read the full paper in the South African Journal of Science, click here.
  • To visit Prof. Lee Berger’s website, click here.
  • To view images, click on National Geographic’s Explorer’s Journal, click here

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