The Tragic Story of the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian
Nothing sparks the human imagination quite like the question, what came before? Philosophers, theologians, and countless religions have spent millennia pontificating on what came before humanity as we know it today. It can be argued that few archaeological sites have done as much as the Peking Man Site, also known as Zhoukoudian, in helping us learn about our most ancient ancestors. Whilst lots of people are familiar with the Peking Man, few know the tragic, winding story of the Peking Man Site.
A Great Start: Discovering the Peking Man Site
The Peking Man Site, or Zhoukoudian, is located in the Fangshan District of Beijing, China. It is a relatively young site, with explorations only beginning in 1918. The first man on the scene was the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson.
Explorations started in an area called Chicken Bone Hill , so-called because the area was rife with what appeared to be small bones. What the locals had misidentified as chicken bones were rodent fossils. Andersson knew he was onto something special straight off the bat stating, “Here is primitive man, now all we have to do is find him!”
Rodent fossils are interesting, but the excitement didn’t really start until 1921. It was then that Andersson and his American colleague, paleontologist Walter W. Granger, were led to a new site, Dragon Bone Hill . Dragon Bone Hill certainly has a better ring to it than Chicken Bones Hill.
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Rather than dragon bones, they came across something else that didn’t belong there, white quartz foreign to that area of China. Either they had stumbled upon a dragon’s hoard or likely evidence that primitive man had lived in the area.
Excavation began in 1921, followed by a second in 1923, led by Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky, one of Andersson’s assistants. They unearthed a lot of material which they sent back to Uppsala University in Sweden for analysis. It was a slow process, but the result was that in 1926 Andersson was able to announce the discovery of two human molars.
A year later Zdansky cautiously published his findings, stating they believed they had found evidence of primitive man at the site. Soon paleontologists from around the world descended on the area looking to make a name for themselves.
A reconstruction of Peking Man, who was found at the Peking Man Site in Beijing, China in the early 20th century, at the Chinese National Museum. (Gary Todd / CC0)
Stepping Up a Gear: The Zhoukoudian Project
One of the many people excited by Zdansky’s paper was the Canadian paleontologist Davidson Black. Black was working at the Peking Union Medical College and wasted no time applying to the Rockefeller Foundation for research funding.
The funding was quickly approved and in 1927 the Zhoukoudian Project began excavations under the watchful eye of Chinese paleontologist Li Jie. In the fall of 1927, another tooth was unearthed. Black proposed the tooth came from a previously undiscovered species that he dubbed Sinanthropus pekinensis .
The next year yet more fossils were uncovered. Teeth, most of a juvenile's jaw, and an adult jaw with three teeth were all found. These netted Black another round of funding, which he used to set up a laboratory.
Protecting Heritage: The Cenozoic Research Laboratory
There was only one problem. The Chinese were getting more than a little anxious. Western researchers had a bad habit of taking important discoveries home with them. As the old joke goes, what's something that seems British but isn’t? Most of the British Museum !
In 1927 a Chinese geologist called Weng Wenhao drafted an agreement with all the Zhoukoudian scientists stating that all remains stay in China. In 1928 the Chinese government went a step further, any exportation of Chinese artifacts or archaeological discoveries to the west was declared an “imperialistic attack.”
If Western researchers wished to study Chinese artifacts, they were to do so in China. To ensure that his research could continue Black arranged for his employer, the Peking Union Medical College, the Geological Survey of China, and the Rockefeller Foundation to team up. The result? The Cenozoic Research Laboratory.
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Franz Weidenreich's 1937 reconstruction of a female Peking Man skull. (Franz Weidenreich / Public domain )
A Metaphorical Gold Mine
All the time and money were well spent. In 1929 an almost complete skullcap was discovered. This was just the beginning and soon a wealth of human remains, stone tools and evidence of potential fire use had been found. The Peking Man Site was the most productive Homo erectus site in the world.
Even Black’s death couldn’t slow things down. Found dead in his tent with a skullcap on his desk he was quickly replaced. Despite the primitive conditions at the site, it drew in the great and the good of the Paleontology world. All in all, over 200 human fossils from more than 40 unique individuals were discovered.
Tragedy Strikes and the Specimens Disappear
Sadly, this isn't the end of the story. In 1937 excavations at the Peking Man Site ground to a halt with the Japanese invasion of China. The fighting between the two was particularly brutal. It was reported that workers at the site were tortured and murdered with at least three being bayoneted to death.
In 1941 it was decided that the discoveries needed to be safeguarded and so it was decided that the United States Marine Corps would transport the fossils from the Peking Union Medical College to the SS President Harrison which was scheduled to dock at Qinhuangdao port.
Tragically the ship never arrived, having been attacked by the Japanese Navy and running aground. The crates carrying the fossils simply disappeared and no one seems to know what happened to them after the ship was sunk.
Rumors abound but have never been substantiated. Some claim they somehow made their way onto the Japanese ship Awa Maru . Others said they were put onto a different American ship that was eventually sunk. Even the Chinese were not free of suspicion - some believed the fossil had been ground up to make traditional Chinese medicine.
The rumors eventually took a political edge. During the “Resist America, Aid Korea Campaign” of 1950 and 1951 allegations of robbery were made against America to stir up Anti-American sentiments.
Perhaps most promisingly, marine Richard Bowen claimed to have found a box full of bones while digging a foxhole in Qinhuangdao. This was in 1947 during the Chinese Civil War. If Bowen’s account is accurate that would mean today the fossils are buried somewhere under a road, warehouse, or parking lot in modern day Qinhuangdao.
Some of the animal fossils found at the Peking Man Site seem to have been modified by humans, with evidence of human markings on top of hyena gnaw marks instead of vice versa. Reconstruction of hyenas at the Zhoukoudian Museum. (xiquinhosilva / CC BY 2.0 )
Thankfully copies had been made of the fossils before their loss by Black’s replacement, so not all was lost. Excavation recommenced in 1949 and new fossils were soon being discovered. Excavations continued over the next several decades but would face new challenges. Under Mao, the site became incredibly important in restructuring the Chinese identity. But researchers were limited in that they were forced to link somehow any discoveries they made with socialism.
Conversely during the Cultural Revolution researchers were often persecuted which impeded their work. Later the site would have to contend with acid rain and the threat of damage from nearby mining.
Thankfully the Peking Man Site became a world heritage site in 1987. It not only gives us an important glimpse into the lives of our earliest ancestors. It also gives a sad glimpse of our most recent. The history of the Peking Man Site is one of international cooperation, war, human greed, and persecution before once again circling back around to international cooperation.
Top image: A replica of the Peking Man skull, because all the originals vanished, from the Peking Man Site, on display at the Paleozoological Museum of China. Source: Yan Li / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Robbie Mitchell
Berge L., Liu, W, Wu, X. 2012. Investigation of a credible report by a US Marine on the location of the missing Peking Man fossils . Available at: https://archive.sajs.co.za/index.php/SAJS/article/view/1122
Boaz, N. T., Ciochon, R. L. 2004. Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice Age saga of Homo erectus . New York.
Melvin, S. 2005. Peking Man still missing and missed . Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20051012071152/http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/10/10/features/melvin.php
UNESCO Editors. 2022. Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian . Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/449/#:~:text=Peking%20Man%20Site%20at%20Zhoukoudian%20is%20a%20Pleistocene%20hominid%20site,Plain%20and%20the%20Yanshan%20Mountains