Fate of the Fossils Science and Responsibility

More ink has been spilled over the loss of the Peking Man fossils than any other historical topic in paleoanthropology, except perhaps the identity of the hoaxer of Piltdown Man. Despite all the interest, the historical research, and the hypotheses, there is still not a single reliable account of a sighting of the fossils since they were packed by Hu and Ji in 1941. It is human nature to speculate on the fate of the fossils, but there are important lessons to be learned as well.

Many believe that the Peking Man fossils still exist. Maybe they lie buried somewhere, or stored away in some warehouse, or kept in hiding to be put up for ransom someday. The 2000 book by Ming-sheng Li and Nan Yue, likely reflective of mainstream Chinese sentiment, maintains that destruction of the fossils is unlikely. These authors put a great deal of faith in the Americans' plan for evacuating the fossils. They suggest four possibilities for the fossils' fate: (1) that they were found by the Japanese and sent to Japan, where they remain; (2) that the Americans secretly changed the plan, and thus kept all Chinese in the dark, tricked the Japanese (who never did find the fossils), and likely brought the fossils to the United States; (3) that the fossils were buried somewhere, probably in China, by either the Americans or the Japanese; or (4) that the fossils were lost by either the Americans or the Japanese, in which case they could be virtually anywhere and may yet be found.

On the other hand there is a less optimistic but much more realistic view of the fossils' fate. If one thinks of the mindless, wanton destruction that accompanies war, the desperate clawing for survival to which people are reduced during a war, the opportunistic scavenging that people revert to in wartime, and the history of destruction of hominid fossils during military operations, one forms a different view of the most probable fate of Peking Man. The documented loss of thousands of fossil and archaeologi-

cal specimens from Longgushan when book-burning military police needed office space at Peking Union Medical College is a case in point. The bombing of museums in Berlin by Allied planes, destroying such specimens as Olduvai Hominid 1 and the Le Moustier Neandertal skeletal remains, and the Nazi destruction of the Predmostí Neandertal fossils in Czechoslovakia are other notorious examples. The misguided sense of relief expressed by Shapiro that the Zhoukoudian fossils were not obliterated by the atomic blasts at Hiroshima or Nagasaki ignores that 80 percent of Tokyo, where they may well have been, was destroyed by conventional Allied fire bombing. Misguided, too, because why should we assume that, with millions of human beings dying around them, the inanimate relics of Peking Man were somehow protected from destruction?

Our assessment is that the fossils of Peking Man are no longer intact and that they never left China. The bones were never seen again after they were packed at Peking Union Medical College. They did leave the college, but where they arrived even after their short journey, whether at the U.S. legation or the marine compound, is unknown. Had the fossils been transported out of China, their notoriety and the continuing interest in their fate over the years would likely have brought them to light. The chaos of China just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the escalation of Japanese aggression almost certainly exposed the fossils to an unprotected setting in which they became no more than isolated "dragon bones," each with a definitive street value (the supposed worthlessness of the fossils was one of Houghton's biggest miscalculations). Like the scattered fossils in the street around the medical college picked up by locals in 1942, the Peking Man fossils, wherever they were scattered, were likely picked up as well. Ground up dragon bone drunk in tea is claimed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to be, in addition to a cure for osteoporosis and male impotence, an excellent reliever of stress. And of that there was an abundance in the troubled times following the years of digging at Longgushan. One way or the other the bones were reclaimed by the dragon, the traditional protector of the Chinese earth and its treasures. One may hope that, as medicine, they helped innumerable Chinese cope with the ordeal of a world war.

This assessment of the fate of Peking Man is shared with Dr. Lucian W. Pye, professor of political science emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1945—46 Dr. Pye was an intelligence officer with the United States Marine Corps in China. He was assigned by the marines to find the Peking Man fossils, primarily for the "honor of the Marine Corps," which had been entrusted with their safekeeping at the beginning of the war. Dr. Pye and his men undertook an intensive investigation of warehouses in China in which the fossils may have been stored. The search was fruitless and Dr. Pye informed General MacArthur's command in Tokyo that a search in Japan might prove productive since there was no sign of the fossils in China. We have been unable to locate any independent records of this investigation, but Dr. Pye relates that two weeks later he received word from Japan that the fossils could not be located there either. At that time the investigation was dropped.46

Even if now destroyed, the bones of Peking Man permanently enriched science. Teilhard de Chardin was one who privately believed that the loss of the hominid fossils from Longgushan was not as catastrophic as it first seemed. In Claire Taschdjian's novel, Teilhard's character is quoted as saying, "The Sinanthrope has been dated, described, measured, x-rayed, drawn, photographed and cast in plaster down to the last fossa, crista and tubercle. . . . The loss is more a matter of sentiment than a true tragedy for science."47 Taschdjian worked as Teilhard's secretary at the Institut de Geo-Biologie in Beijing from 1941 to 1946 and was well aware of his opinions (Teilhard also performed her marriage in 194648). For scientists, much of the fossils' worth lay in the monographs, maps, and photographs that recorded their anatomy and geological context. As we show in the succeeding chapters in this book, much remains to be learned from the site of

Longgushan and its fossils. The credit for this happy state of affairs is due to the untiring efforts of the Zhoukoudian scientists—Black, Yang, Teilhard, Pei, Weidenreich, and Jia—who documented the discoveries so well through a steady stream of publications, cast the specimens and sent the copies abroad, and photographed and mapped the site as it was excavated. But the loss of the original fossils does limit some types of direct research on the specimens. Could the loss of the specimens have been prevented, and are there any lessons for science? We believe the answer is yes in both cases.

Franz Weidenreich took on more than the anatomical description of the Sinanthropus fossils from Dragon Bone Hill when he stepped into Davidson Black's shoes. He inherited the curatorial responsibility of ensuring the safety of the collection. Ideally, Weidenreich

Franz Weidenreich after leaving Beijing in mid-1941 in his office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. On the table in front of him are a cast of Homo erectus from Longgushan (on pedestal), a modern chimpanzee skull (on left), and a modern Homo sapiens skull (on right).

the curator would have ensured the safety of the fossils before he left China, either by carrying them to safety himself or ensuring their removal to a safe location in China. But as we have seen, he did not have a choice in the matter. The record does show that Weidenreich pushed successfully for action by the Rockefeller Foundation as soon as he arrived in New York.

As the government official in charge of the Peking Man fossils, Weng Wen-hao had an even more onerous curatorial duty. His was to vouchsafe the Longusshan specimens for China. But what is the appropriate course of action when the control of a country is in dispute? In hindsight, had Weng requested the Peking Man fossils from the medical school as soon as the Nationalist government vacated Beijing, and then simply buried them somewhere until after the war, the fossils' whereabouts would have at least been known. The Peking Man fossils were widely known as a Chinese national treasure and they would likely have been kept intact by any Chinese faction into whose hands they fell. It is possibile that Nationalist Chinese agents succeeded in locating the Peking Man fossils before the Japanese, kept the discovery secret, and transported them to Taiwan at the end of the war. So far as we are aware, a concerted search for the Peking Man fossils among relics that might have been taken from the mainland to Taiwan by the Nationalist government has never been undertaken. Weng's strategy, however, was to pursue the only avenue that he thought feasible— evacuation of Peking Man by the U.S. government and the Rockefeller Foundation. His plan might have worked had it been put into operation earlier in 1941.

The motives of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Japanese scientists in China attempting to loot the Peking Man fossils seem to have been grounded in a sort of Napoleonic cultural imperialism. The Japanese wanted to acquire the Peking Man fossils not only because the fossils had international scientific importance and represented their ancient mainland ancestors, but because the Chinese considered them national treasures. By capturing Peking Man, the Japanese could seal their domination of the Chinese, whose country they now controlled militarily. However, the importance of scientific specimens such as Peking Man transcends nationalism, if this indeed was at the root of the Japanese interest in the fossils. Our reading of the evidence is that the Japanese had no more success finding Sinanthropus in China than they did finding the bulk of the Pithecanthropus fossils, which had been well hidden in Java by Ralph von Koenigswald.

Dr. Henry Houghton occupies a unique place in the history of Peking Man. Originally and to the end, he wanted his medical school to have no part in ancient caves and dusty fossils. But the enthusiastic conspiracy of his faculty, young Chinese researchers, and the international scientific community had just been too much for him to withstand. He had reluctantly agreed to allow the medical school to serve as the focus for one of the largest paleontological projects in history—a purpose in his opinion far removed from medicine. Yet it fell to Houghton, when war loomed on the horizon, to ensure the safety of the invaluable fossils. One would have thought that he would have welcomed the opportunity to rid himself of Peking Man as soon as possible. Instead, he opposed the removal of the fossils from the medical school on the basis that fragile political relations in Japanese-occupied Beijing might be compromised. When it became apparent that those relations were irreparable, he should have acted expeditiously. But Houghton's concerns were never for the scientific importance of the Longgushan fossils, and on December 8, 1941, time ran out. Houghton had finally acted, but the Peking Man fossils were caught somewhere in the swirling chaos of world war. Houghton, along with Controller Bowen, as the last of the American administration of the Peking Union Medical College left in Beijing, were interned by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. They remained imprisoned for the duration of the war. The safety of the fossils had been Houghton's responsibility, but unlike Ralph von Koenigswald, who dug up his fossils when he was released from a Japanese prison in Java at the end of the war, Houghton would have had no idea where the Longgushan fossils might be, even if he had cared to look.

The disappearance of the Longgushan fossils represents the single greatest loss of original data in the history of paleoanthropology. There are those who still search for them. We wish them well, for there is a slight chance that the Peking Man fossils escaped the massive forces of destruction run amok in World War II. Unfortunately, it is most likely that, as soon as they left their safe haven in the rarified environment of a scientific laboratory, they were transformed back into dragon bones. As dragon bones once more, they probably were sold as valuable commodities and then most likely consumed as medicine. We strongly suspect that, like the bones of Dr. Davidson Black, whose grave was razed during the postwar reconstruction of Beijing,49 the bones of the hominids that he helped discover have now been irretrievably commingled with the earth of China.


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