The Bizarre Disappearance of the Peking Man Fossil

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Peking Man was first seen at an archaeological dig site in China the 1920s. He was last seen being loaded into some boxes in 1941, destined for the United States. The boxes disappeared, and no trace of them was ever found. Since then, many conspiracy theories have been swirling about the missing fossils.


The fossilized remains of Homo erectus pekinensis, or Peking Man, spent the thirties in China, where they were puzzled over by paleontologists and anthropologists. Multiple skulls, lower jaws, and teeth, were found in a cave outside the city that was then called Peking, and is now called Beijing. Homo erectus fossils were first found in Java, in the 1890s, but some scientists believed that they were nothing but an unusual or deformed species of ape. Peking Man put a stop to that line of thought, and therefore was a cultural and scientific treasure.

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In September of 1941, with China and Japan fighting each other and America edging closer to war, the fossils were packed up to be sent to the United States. They were to travel by train, and then boat, to America, where they would spend the duration of the war. They disappeared. No one knows if they made it to the boat. No one is even sure of the exact method of conveyance - since the official story might have been a cover. There are theories aplenty. China has them and never let them go. America has them and never intended to give them back. Japan has them, having raided either the train or the boat and brought them home.

There are also more prosaic explanations. Most people believe that the train that they were housed on was raided, or stolen from, and the bones were considered worthless and tossed aside. Others think that they made it to either an American or Japanese boat, which was subsequently sunk.

From time to time a few possible leads surface. An American marine stationed in China during its civil war claims to have found a box of bones while digging a foxhole. A woman in the 1970s said she had them, met with American investigators on top of the Empire State Building and showed them a photograph of the box that supposedly contained the bones, demanding $500,000 for their return. She disappeared, without claiming the money. Every few years a reward is offered for information that leads to their return. But most likely the fossils are lost forever, a perpetual mystery.

Second Image: Eurekalert

Via Scientific American, NY Times, New Scientist, and Smithsonian Blogs.




Beijng is has always been called Beijing, but with pinyin it is now transcribed for foreigners as "Beijing" instead of "Peking" :)