The Peking Man and the US Marine

By Wits University

23 March 2012

Warehouses built over the location of the enlisted men’s barracks in the late 1970’s.Equal to solving the “whodunit” of the Piltdown Hoax, the loss of the Peking man fossils remains perhaps the greatest palaeoanthropological mystery in the history of the science.

Lost in 1939 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.

In a paper published in the South African Journal of Science on Thursday, 22 March 2012, Prof. Lee Berger, Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the Institute of Human Evolution at Wits University, and 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.

The 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 in 1947.

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 the paper, Berger, Liu and Wu investigate Bowen’s story 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.

  • 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.

Background information:

 The Story and search for the fossils

 Richard Bowen and a mysterious crate

 Was this the last sighting of the Peking Man?

 The search for the location

 Were these the missing Peking Man fossils?

 Questions and Answers

 Further reading

 Zipped file of relevant pictures



 Decades-old Peking Man mystery could be buried under car park, Cape Times, 23 March 2012

 The quest to find a box of man's oldest bones, The Star, 23 March 2012

 Wits prof hot on trail of Peking Man fossils, The Weekend Witness, 24 March 2012

 Oermens-raaisel dalk so opgelos, Rapport, 25 March 2012

 Fossils mystery could be solved, The Herald, 26 March 2012

 Online media coverage

 OFM, 26 March 2012

 RSG, 27 March 2012