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Mystery still shrouds Peking Man 80 years after discovery
From:  Writer:  Date:2009-12-03

 

     In a swirl of snowflakes, the bronze bust of Peking Man is an unflinching sentinel in front of the main entrance of the museum in Zhoukoudian Caves on a bitingly cold morning.

    It must have been a similar day on Dec. 2, 1929, when Chinese paleontologist Pei Wenzhong made his discovery -- the first complete skull of Peking Man, or Homo erectus -- at the Zhoukoudian excavation site.

    The investigation started in 1921 when Swedish geologist John Gunnar Anderson came to search for animal fossils. Under the guidance of Austrian Otto Zdansky, the first excavations started and two hominid teeth were found in 1926.

    They continued when Davidson Black, a Canadian pale anthropologist working at Zhoukoudian, applied for financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1927. He defined a new species called Sinanthropus pekinensis which was later changed to Homo erectus pekinensis. By 1937 researchers had found 200 human fossils from about 40 individual specimens.

    Left of the bronze sculpture is a sign pointing to the "Do-it-yourself area", where visitors can glue plastic bones together to replicate the Peking Man skeleton.

    The plastic bones are basically all that is left of Peking Man.

    German researcher Franz Weidenreich made imprints of the original bones before the Japanese invasion. But the original bones have been missing since 1941. During the war against the Japanese invasion from 1937 to 1945, the team of researchers in Zhoukoudian decided to send the skulls and other fossils to safety in the United States.

    But the fossils disappeared. "I do not believe that they are lost, so it must be possible to find them," says Zhou Guoxing, 74,a former researcher at the Beijing Natural History Museum.

    He is a member of the Committee to Search for the Peking Man, launched by the Chinese government in 2005. He has already been searching for the fossils for about 40 years.

    First he thought that he would find the bones in Beijing.

    A friend working for the U.S. marines told him that Americans buried the cases with the bones below the former US embassy in downtown Beijing before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec.7. 1941.

    But when Zhou went to the site he found nothing. The place had been turned into a hotel. So Zhou followed other leads.

    He believes the Japanese have the bones. His theory: the cases with the fossils were brought to a U.S. army camp in coastal Qinhuangdao, 300 kilometers east of Beijing, before they were seized by the Japanese Army. He launched a Sino-Japanese foundation to search for the fossils, but without success.

    Still, other experts believe the bones were sunk with the Japanese freighter Awa Maru, which was torpedoed in 1945, but Zhou disagrees.

    In 1972, Chicago financier Christopher Janus offered a reward of 5,000 U.S dollars for recovery of the fossils. Only the story about a woman, who met Janus on the top of the Empire State Building in New York raised the interest of the public.

    She was the widow of a U.S. marine and claimed to own the Peking Man fossils. She brought pictures to Janus that were investigated by researchers, who confirmed they possibly were pictures of the original bones. But suddenly the woman disappeared and was never found again.

    Other theories have been more fantastical, but none ever revealed any substantial evidence of the whereabouts of the fossils.

    Eighty years after his discovery, Peking Man still gives rise to speculation and mystery. Another piece of a puzzle fell into place in April 2008 when a U.S.-Chinese research team finally achieved results with a new dating method that they had been working on since 2004.

    Professor Shen Guanjun from the Nanjing Normal University said, "This method tested the fossils from the layer of rock where the missing skeleton was unearthed."

    Peking Man was previously believed to have lived in Zhoukoudian Caves in present-day Fangshan District about 400,000 to 500,000 years ago. But in March, Chinese scientists, including Shen, revealed they were actually 200,000 years older, probably from a mild glacial period.

    The new dating has prompted researchers to rethink their theories about Peking Man's life and origins.

    But the questions about Peking Man, like his bronze statue, seem to go on.

 

 
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