CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 3, September 2005


The Renewed Search for Peking Man | China Heritage Quarterly


The bust of Peking Man as he greets visitors to the Peking Man Site Museum Fig. 1 The bust of Peking Man as he greets visitors to the Peking Man Site Museum at the Zhoukoudian World Heritage Site, Beijing.

The FBI and CIA, not to mention a number of Chinese and Japanese government agencies and individuals, have been involved at various times in the search for the remains of Peking Man. These went missing in 1941, during a decisive phase in the escalation of the Pacific War. Now, more than 60 years later, the Fangshan district government of south-western Beijing has taken on the mission of solving one of the major "archaeological" mysteries of the 20th century. On 2 July 2005, the Fangshan government authorities announced the establishment on 2 July 2005 of a "working committee to locate the fossilised skulls of Peking Man". The committee's official Chinese title is Xunzhao Beijingren Tougaigu Huashi Gongzuo Weiyuanhui.

Why resume the search now, when previous investigative efforts have all proved futile? The motives of the Fangshan government and the scientific worth of this renewed effort to find the missing remains have been called into question in the Chinese press, but any new evidence uncovered will be of more than passing interest to scientists, not to mention people fond of a good crime mystery. (See, for example, forensics/peking_man )

In 1926, the Swedish geologist and archaeologist J.G. Andersson discovered fossilised teeth and other palaeolithic skeletal remains in an abandoned quarry at Zhoukoudian in Fangshan county outside Beijing. Three years later at the same site, the Chinese anthropologist Pei Wenzhong found the first skull of the same early hominid, dubbed "Peking Man" and scientifically designated Homo erectus pekinensis (formerly, Sinanthropus pekinensis). From related strata the remains were identified as dating back more than 500,000 years. These and subsequent discoveries by an international team of excavators and researchers, which included at various times such authorities as Otto Zdansky, Teilhard de Chardin S.J. and Pei Wenzhong, shook the scientific world and led to major advances in the understanding knowledge of human evolution. The skeletal morphology of Peking Man, excluding the skull, is similar to that of modern man, and the cranial capacity, while smaller than that of modern man was larger than that of Homo habilis discovered in South Africa, and of Java Man. Moreover, there is clear archaeological evidence of Peking Man's use of tools and fire, as well as the earliest evidence that humans lived in groups. The significance of these discoveries was acknowledged by UNESCO when it listed in listing Zhoukoudian as a World Heritage Site in December 1987. (See Fig. 1)

Initial research on the fossil discoveries was conducted with funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Cenozoic Research Laboratory located in the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC), an American Baptist medical teaching facility that is still a hospital in today's Beijing (now called Tongren Yiyuan). In 1934, the eminent physical anthropologist Franz Weidenreich, a visiting professor from the University of Chicago, was hired to head the research laboratory in Beiping. At the time of his arrival in China, fieldwork was continuing at the Zhoukoudian site under the supervision of archaeologist Jia Lanpo. However, Japanese incursions in the vicinity of the Marco Polo Bridge, not very far from Zhoukoudian, resulted in the suspension of excavation work in 1937. Japanese scientists were, however, also extremely interested in the finds, and familiar with the work being conducted in Beiping.

Given the deteriorating international situation from the beginning of 1941, the researchers were concerned for the security of their material. It was clear that war between the US and Japan loomed, but there was hesitation, one reason for the delay in removing the remains to safety outside China was occasioned by the Rockefeller Foundation's initial insistence that the Zhoukoudian remains stay in China. However, the increasing danger posed to the valuable fossil materials caused the foundation later to agree to their removal to the United States for temporary safekeeping.

The prelude to the mysterious disappearance of all the excavated Peking Man fossils is vividly described by Hu Zhengzhi, an anthropologist who pioneered research on Yuanmou Man, in a long letter included in Jia Lanpo's Early Man in China (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980). Hu relates that, in the summer of 1941, his colleague Franz Weidenreich, on the eve of his return to the United States, gave instructions to make replicas of all the fossil specimens of human skulls and to send them to him in America. Weidenreich also instructed that the originals be transferred from the Japanese-occupied area for safety before he left for the USA. Prof. Weidenreich had been unable to persuade the US ambassador and the commanding officer of the Marine Corps in Beijing to dispatch this valuable material in diplomatic luggage. About three months later, the archaeologist Pei Wenzhong also informed Hu that all Peking Man fossils were to be shipped off, and Hu was told to await further instructions.

Exterior view of the Peking Man Site Museum Fig.2 Exterior view of the Peking Man Site Museum at the Zhoukoudian World Heritage Site, Beijing.

Some months passed before Weidenreich's typist instructed Hu that all the Peking Man specimens were to be boxed for shipping. Hu confirmed this with Professor Pei, who urged him to complete the job as quickly as possible. After carefully wrapping the fossils and packing them in two cases, Hu Zhengzhi and his colleagues delivered them to the head of the Controller's Office of the PUMC. Hu Zhengzhi and Professor Pei Wenzhong have long discussed the date of the removal of the specimens to the No. 4 strong room in Building F at the PUMC, and believe that it was between 18 and 21 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, from the time the fossils were packed into the two crates, the story becomes confused and contradictory. The mass of conflicting details are spelled out in anthropologist Harry L Shapiro's Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976).

The two crates which Pei Wenzhong helped pack in November were intended to be sent to the US Embassy and from there transferred by the US Marine Corps based in the Beiping area to Qinhuangdao, the port for Tianjin, but the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December (8 December in China) meant that Japan and the US were now automatically at war. Pei Wenzhong writes that, for the Japanese, the fossils were a focus of scholarly interest and at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor two professors from the Tokyo Imperial College—Hasebe Kotondo and Takai Tōji—were on their way to the PUMC in Beiping. Pei Wenzhong describes in Studies in Chinese Prehistory how the American administrator of the PUMC was subjected to five days of interrogation by the Japanese after they took control of the teaching facility on 8 December. The day after the Japanese took over the college, Pei told Hu that according to S. K. Wang, then head of the hospital attached to the PUMC, the fossils had been moved into the No. 4 strong room in Building F of the medical college on the day Pei and Hu delivered them, but were transferred to an unknown location the following day. Shortly thereafter, the anthropologist Dr. Hasebe Kotondo went to Beiping to study Peking Man and it was then that the disappearance of the fossils was discovered. Pei Wenzhong firmly believed that the Japanese had seized the material, but the evidence he provided is contradictory; Harry L Shapiro favoured an explanation pointing to an American, Chinese or Taiwanese destination for the material.

The information about when the two crates left the hospital is also contradictory. From Pei's account it would appear that the two boxes were sent to the US Embassy in late November to be transferred to the US Marine Corps. The marines were entrusted with their safe conduct to the USA. Here Harry L Shapiro takes up the story. On 8 December, the marines said to have been in charge of the crates were interned in Qinhuangdao and transferred to a prison camp near Tianjin. However, according to Dr Foley of the Marine Corps, the two crates packed with the fossils which had been consigned to him as private luggage were unloaded in Tianjin. According to Herman Davis, a pharmacist at the American camp in Qinhuangdao also interned on the 8th, the crates containing the possessions of Foley and himself were sent on to them and arrived in Tianjin one week later. After interment, Dr Foley was released for a short time with semi-diplomatic status in Tianjin, and during his brief days of freedom is said to have deposited the crates, which he claimed never to have opened, with the Swiss Warehouse and the Pasteur Institute in Tianjin, as well as with Chinese friends on whom he could rely, but he soon lost his semi-diplomatic status and was re-interned in Shanghai. This account of the deposition of the crates immediately suggests that there were more than two crates!

Over subsequent decades numerous efforts were made in the United States to trace the various marines involved in consigning Peking Man's remains. The most thorough efforts were made in the 1970s by Christopher Janus, a Chicago broker and the director of the Greek Heritage Foundation. He posted a reward for information leading to the recovery of the fossils. Harry L Shapiro was also involved in the search. At one point the FBI even lent its assistance as various leads were followed up, but all attempts to locate the fossils proved unsuccessful. The hottest the trail ever got was when a publicity-shy woman, possibly the widow of a marine, contacted Janus, claiming to have the fossils. She eventually provided a fuzzy photograph of the box she claimed was in her possession, and one obscured skull in the photograph was identified by Shapiro as 'possibly' belonging to Peking Man. It was a remote possibility, and one that warranted further examination, but the woman disappeared as mysteriously as when she first appeared—that was at a rendezvous with Janus that she had arranged on the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. She never re-appeared. Today, only the casts of the skeletal material made by Weidenreich and others remain; and replicas of these are on display at the Zhoukoudian site museum in Fangshan. (See Fig. 2)

Jia Lanpo has long believed that the fossils might be in the United States, but other reports in China have suggested that they are in Japan. On 28 February 2000, Guangming ribao published an interview with Zhou Guoxing, a researcher at the Beijing Natural History Museum, who in the 1980s established through American contacts that on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an American naval officer and an embassy guard witnessed two people burying a crate in the grounds at the rear of the American Embassy and assumed these to be the fossils of Peking Man that were being hidden for safety. Zhou subsequently followed up this lead and discovered that a garage now occupies the spot where the objects were supposedly buried. No attempt has been made since to find the alleged cache.

[It is strange that a mere garage would constitute an obstacle to excavation, since the US Embassy is far from being averse to Chinese archaeological excavations on their grounds. In March 2000, for instance, a 300-year old tomb was excavated by the Beijing Cultural Heritage and Preservation Bureau within the US Embassy grounds. The tomb had been found by labourers, and the archaeologists unearthed a grave that turned out to be that of a woman buried in the early Qing dynasty. Excavators found some rare coins and a jar containing a rare green polish interred along with the human remains. Needless to say, no trace of Peking Man was discovered during that dig!]

Zhou Guoxing has also followed up the Japanese connection. While visiting Japan to participate in celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Japanese relations in 1992, Zhou took the opportunity presented by an exhibition of Chinese fossils in Osaka to set up an NGO in conjunction with the Sino-Japanese Friendship Association in that city, which called for the location of the Peking Man fossils and their restitution to China if found. Iketani Senshi, a professor at Shizuoka University, was an active member of this group. Asahi Shimbun's Osaka bureau publicised the cause, but later quietly dropped it, fearing it might become a second 'comfort women' case. Iketani was a student of the eminent Japanese anthropologist Takai Tōji who had visited China on three occasions after the attack on Pearl Harbor and is said to have seen the fossils at PUMC. It was only during his third trip to China, in August 1942, that he and the Japanese anthropologist Nagakai Motogen announced that the fossils were missing. Zhou failed to secure an interview with Professor Nagakai, but the latter sent him a letter through an intermediary stressing that the fossils had definitely not gone to Japan but had been shipped to America.

Skull of male (left) and female (right) from Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian

Fig. 3 Skull of male (left) and female (right) from Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian.

Zhou argued that none of this information added up. The reports concerning the burial of the fossils at the United States Embassy were only hearsay, and many American military shipments were seized by the Japanese at Qinhuangdao. However, the recent surfacing of Java Man fossils in the US suggests to many that America cannot be ruled out as a possible final destination for the Peking Man materials in the 1940s. Nevertheless, Zhou believes that there is a greater possibility that the fossils are in Japan. During the war, he notes, the Japanese shipped fossils of Solo Man from the Dutch East Indies which were only returned following the cessation of hostilities. The fossils of Peking Man, it is argued, also disappeared during the Japanese occupation and their appropriation would have conformed with Japan's imperial designs at the time.

Two other explanations for the disappearance have also been advanced in recent years. One story comes from a veteran Japanese soldier, Nakada Hironami, who claimed that, on 4 January 1946, he saw the fossil skull of Peking Man in the home of his father-in-law, Endō Takaji in Changchun (then known as Shinkyō, the capital of the puppet state of Manchukuo). After Endō returned to Japan in 1948, Nakada again saw the box containing the fossils at his father-in-law's house there. Zhou doubted the story because the former soldier claimed that he saw a complete skull: Zhou argued that in fact only the upper cranial sections of six separate skulls went missing. Endō Takaji was a professional archaeologist studying the remains of Zhalainur Man found in Manchuria, and Zhou believes that what Nakada saw were probably the remains of Zhalainur Man, not Peking Man. However, Hu Zhengzhi's letter which provides an inventory of the contents of the two cases did list several intact skulls.

Zhou also cited a reporter with Guangming Daily Li Shuxi, who suggested that the Peking Man fossils were lost in the wreck of the steamer Awa maru, sunk by the Americans in April 1945. However, Zhou questions why, if the Japanese obtained the Peking Man remains in 1942, they waited until 1945 to ship them to Japan.

Now, in September 2005, the new search team co-ordinated by the district government of Fangshan has announced that it will follow up every lead provided by members of the public, stressing that it has the full support of the central government in pursuing overseas leads. The team made another interesting announcement: it appears to believe that the lost remains are either on the Chinese mainland or in Japan. The committee seems to have ruled out all other rumours and evidence, albeit circumstantial, effectively eliminating the USA, Taiwan and Korea, as well as the bottom of the sea as the final resting place of the fossils. It is strange that the committee should discount all earlier information, even more so in light of the flimsiness of the new leads they revealed in September, at least as they are presented in their reported versions. Liu Yajun, the head of the committee, announced that, since its establishment in July, the committee has been provided with 63 tips by members of the public. It should be added that prior to the establishment of the committee, the Zhoukoudian Site Museum had received 21 leads as to the location of Peking Man, but the report failed to reveal how long they have been sitting on this information.

Liu Yajun told reporters that the committee is taking four of the new leads seriously, but the supporting evidence seems so slight as to be almost risible. These leads are: (1) A Mr. Wu of Beijing notified the committee that, in 1985, when veteran Chinese palaeoanthropologist Jia Lanpo was composing his autobiography, he was assisted by a Professor Gu from Gansu. Prof Gu had revealed to Jia Lanpo that he saw the transcript of the trial of a US 'lieutenant commander' that detailed the whereabouts of the remains in the Japanese archives; (2) A Mr Ren from Beijing claimed to know someone whose father was once a doctor at PUMC, and that this fellow had brought home a skull now to be found in an unnamed person's house; (3) A Mr Liu from Beijing informed the committee that he knew "an old revolutionary" who told him that he had one of the skulls, but he had unfortunately not kept the old man's name, telephone number or address, and so did not know how to contact him; and, (4) A Mr Wu from Jiangxi told them that he knew of a 121-year old man who served as a high official under Sun Yat-sen who had once told him that he knew the fossils were in China, and knew their precise location. We can only hope that the latter tip is followed up post-haste!

Together with these tantalising titbits, the report in the 6 September issue of Beijing Youth Daily also included the most comprehensive list of the missing fossils published to date. The inventory compiled by the committee over a three-month period provides details of the contents of all seven boxes of fossils packed inside the two large crates that went missing in 1941. These comprise hundreds of teeth and skeletal remains, including the four skulls of Peking Man, as well as skulls, teeth and fossilised bones of the 18,000 year old Upper Cave Man (Shandingdongren) also unearthed at Zhoukoudian. (See Fig. 3)

The effort to recover the remains of Peking Man has been derided by Fang Zhouzi, writing in the pages of the Beijing Sci-Tech Report, a weekly supplement of Beijing Youth Daily. Fang Zhouzi is the pen-name of Fang Shimin, the well-known media debunker of fengshui and other forms of ancient learning and practices which he alleges are pseudo-sciences. He suggests that the latest search for the Peking Man fossils is merely an example of grand standing on the part of the Fangshan district government, and is "of no great scientific value". He is probably missing the point. Science has advanced tremendously over the seven decades or so since the Peking Man material was discovered and scientific knowledge in archaeology and palaeoanthropology proceeds only by constant re-examination of existing evidence. There might well be much new knowledge to be gained from subjecting this valuable body of material to the scrutiny of modern analytical technologies not available to earlier scholars. Moreover, over recent decades, Creationists have claimed that the Peking Man fossils are remains of apes devoured by modern humans, that the casts are inventions and even that the Peking Man material was all part of an elaborate hoax consummated by the destruction of all the material in the early 1940s. The latter view is argued in Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis (1969) by Rev. Patrick O'Connell, a Roman Catholic priest who was in China in the 1930s. O'Connell has no expertise in any of the areas he discusses, but Fang Shimin should be aware that even in China such people often acquire an adulatory following. [BGD]


Boaz, Noel and Ciochan, Russell, Dragon Bones: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo Erectus, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Doar, Bruce, "The whereabouts of Peking Man fossils", China Archaeology and Art Digest, Vol. 3, no. 4, June 2000, pp.193-194.

Fang Zhouzi, "Xunzhao Beijingren huashi youmeiyou xueshu jiazhi?" (Does the search for Peking Man's remains have any research value?), Beijing keji bao, 2005.8.3, p.2.

Shapiro, Harry L., Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure, London: Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1976.

Van Oosterzee, Penny, Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man, USA: Perseus Publishing, 2000.