Friday 23 March 2012

Trying to find Peking Man.

Peking Man is a collective name given to a group of hominid fossils found at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, between 1929 and 1937. This comprised remains from at least 15 individuals, assigned to the species Homo erectus, with an estimated age between 300 000 and 780 000 years old. In 1937 the invading Japanese army was drawing close to Zhoukoudian and the excavation was abandoned. The fossils were taken to the Peking Union Medical College, where in 1941 they were packed into crates in order to be evacuated to the United States. The plan was to ship the remains to the Fort Holcomb US Marine base near the port of Qinhaungdao, then ship them to America on board the SS President Harrison.

Reconstructed model of a Peking Man skull. University of Iowa.

Unfortunately the SS President Harrison was intercepted by a Japanese destroyer en route from Manila. The ship's master elected to scupper it by running it onto a small island, rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands; the crew were captured, forced to work on refloating the ship, and eventually ended up in POW camps in Japan. Fort Holcomb and its Marine garrison were forced to surrender within a few weeks.

The Peking Man fossils are known to have left the Peking Union Medical College, but after that their fate is unknown. They never reached the U.S., but it is unclear if they ever reached Fort Holcomb, and they have not been seen since the war, generally being presumed to have been destroyed.

A paper in the March edition of the South African Journal of Science by Lee Berger of the Institute of Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand and Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu of the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, discuss a report of a possible sighting of the Peking Man fossils in 1947, and its implications for the recovery of the specimens.

The sighting was reported by Paul Bowen who contacted Lee Berger in 2010, about a story he had been told by his father, Richard Bowen. Richard Bowen served as a Marine at Fort Holcomb in 1947, when the camp was briefly re-occupied by the US. During this time the site was surrounded by Chinese Communist troops, and it seemed highly likely that hostilities would commence. The Marines responded to this by digging a large number of fox-holes, and during the digging of one of these, apparently, came across a chest full of what appeared to be human remains, which the Marines found slightly distasteful and promptly reburied. Eventually the US garrisons in China were recalled to America without any fighting, where Mr Bowen eventually heard the story of the missing Peking Man fossils.

It seemed quite plausible that in the confusion of the 1941 siege of Fort Holcomb the chests were buried for later retrieval, but that nobody who knew where survived till the end of the war.

Mr Bowen senior was able to identify the approximate site where the chest was reburied in 1947, using old military maps and Google Earth, allowing the team to visit the site with a local historian. While the site had been re-developed, it was covered only by low-rise warehousing and parking lots, so there seems a reasonable chance that if the Peking Man remains were buried deep enough, they might have survived intact.

Top: 1938 military map of Fort Holcomb and the surrounding area. The arrow indicates the position of a railway bridge, and the box is the site of the enlisted men's barracks, close to which the box was buried. Bottom Google Earth map of the same area. Berger et al. (2012).

The area is due for re-developing in the near future, with larger buildings, which will require deeper foundations. Given the potential importance of the fossils the local Cultural Heritage Office have agreed to monitor the development closely, in the hope that Peking Man can be recovered.