Peking Man Under Siege

Soon after the incident at Marco Polo Bridge and the cessation of excavation at Longgushan, in July 1937, Franz Weidenreich asked his technical assistant at Peking Union Medical School, Chengzhi Hu, to begin packing up all the hominid fossils. Hu enlisted a carpenter to make two crates for the fossils. He then carefully wrapped each fossil in layers of protective paper and cotton batting, made a packing list, and placed them into the crates. Once the crates were packed, Weidenreich had them delivered to the vault of an American bank in Beijing for safekeeping in case the Japanese took over the medical school.7 How long the fossils stayed in the bank vault is difficult to determine, but at some point they were returned to Peking Union Medical College, perhaps in the latter part of 1937 when it became clear that the Japanese occupiers of Beijing intended to respect the territorial concessions of the various foreign governments in China. But Hu kept the crates. They were to be used again.

That there were others interested in the Peking Man fossils and their site was evidenced by an incident that occurred in late 1937. The head

View of the excavation at Locality 1, looking east, June 15, 1937. The vertical opening of Pigeon Hall Cave can be seen at the upper left. This photograph was taken on serial field day 165, approximately a month before excavation was halted by the onset of the Sino-Japanese War and subsequently by World War II. The stratum excavated here was Level 28, Layer 10. In the upper left of the excavated area (Square K, —2), two fossil teeth of a macaque monkey were discovered. Immediately below this level (Square H, —4, Level 29) the last Homo erectus skull (Skull XIII) was discovered.

technician at Longgushan, Wanhua Zhao, reported in a letter written on November 10, 1937, to Lanpo Jia back in Beijing that three truckloads of Japanese soldiers and six civilians had arrived at the site. The civilians (who we suspect were Japanese academics) had come armed with technical articles about Dragon Bone Hill geology and paleoanthropology; the soldiers had come armed with rifles. They asked the whereabouts of Pei and Lanpo Jia. They took photos and some measurements of the site, had a picnic lunch, and then left in the afternoon. In his book, Lanpo Jia cites this invasion of a well-established site as proof that the Japanese were after the Peking Man fossils. But what if they had been invited?

A report by Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation dated June 20, 1941, provides the details of an amazing interview with Franz Weidenreich soon after the latter arrived in New York. It places the incident at Longgushan in a different light.8 The report states that Weidenreich "has been on good terms with an elderly Japanese archaeologist, Professor R. Torii,9 who is now staying with his family at Yenching University."10 Even though Weidenreich was no longer a German citizen,11 he may have been given the latitude and special considerations accorded the German community in China by the Japanese, who now were Axis allies of Germany. Weidenreich likely had relatively free access to other academics in Beijing during the Japanese occupation. Weaver's 1941 report says that Weidenreich "thinks that it would be entirely feasible to carry on the Ceno-zoic program [at Zhoukoudian] actively at the present time." Could Weidenreich have been aware of the Japanese visit to Zhoukoudian in 1937? Was it he who supplied the publications to the Japanese visitors? Although we have no evidence that Torii was one of the civilian visitors to the site, Weidenreich may well have contemplated and even begun setting up a collaboration with the Japanese to excavate more fossils, but he may have diplomatically kept this information from his Chinese colleagues. Certainly, Lanpo Jia never makes any mention of Professor Torii or Weid-enreich's possible connection with him.

We know of Weidenreich's opinions regarding the Japanese from Dr. Weaver's notes from the 1941 meeting. Weidenreich strove to convince the Rockefeller Foundation of the feasibility of reinitiating excavation at Dragon Bone Hill under Japanese occupation. Indeed, this was one of his primary objectives in meeting with Dr. Weaver in June of that year. Weaver writes that "W[eidenreich] thinks that it would be entirely feasible to carry on the Cenozoic program actively at the present time. It would, indeed, be necessary to ask permission of the Japanese authorities. But W[eidenreich] feels confident that this would be granted and that no difficulties would arise." Dr. Houghton opposed the plan and had successfully blocked it. Weidenreich complained to Weaver that Houghton was determined to make a political issue out of continued research at the cave. Weaver quotes

Weidenreich as saying that "it would be perfectly simple to keep the work quite innocently removed from politics." Houghton, on the other hand, reportedly countered that the Chinese members of his board would resign in protest if he were to ask permission from the Japanese or appear to collaborate with them in any way. Weidenreich's last word with Weaver was that "this is entirely unrealistic since the Japanese are actually in control and their permission must be obtained on various matters."

Whatever Weidenreich's intentions to reinitiate research at Longgushan during the Japanese occupation of Beijing before the Pearl Harbor attack, between 1937 and 1941, they bore no fruit. In retrospect, however, Weidenreich's opinion that the Japanese posed no real threat to the safety of the Peking Man fossils helps to explain why, after the fossils returned to Peking Union Medical College from the Beijing bank vault, no action was taken to safeguard them for the four long years of Japanese occupation. They went back into the safe in Weidenreich's office, and he continued to examine, measure, compare, and describe the fossils. Technicians worked feverishly to finish the molding and casting of the fossils so that accurate replicas could be made and sent abroad. Artists and photographers worked closely with Weidenreich to render the fossils carefully for his illustrated monographs. In the spring of 1939, Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleontologist who had discovered new Homo erectus fossils in Java, visited occupied Beijing and brought his fossils with him. He worked with Weidenreich in the medical school for two months, comparing and contrasting the early hominid specimens from the two most important fossil-iferous areas of Asia. This period of comparative study was to prove seminal in the interpretation of the evolutionary significance of Homo erectus by both scientists, but privately von Koenigswald was criticized by Weidenreich's staff. Hu is quoted as saying, "We all worried about the safety of the specimens he brought along and disapproved of his incautious-ness."12 Yet at the war's end all of von Koenigswald's fossils were accounted for. A much different fate awaited

Peking Man. German paleoanthropologist Ralph von Koenigs-

The Nationalist Chinese govern- wald {center) in 1938 with Pierre Teilhard de ment under Chiang Kai-shek had Chardin (left), visiting from Beijing, and German moved south to the city of Nanjing geologist Helmut de Terra (right) in Java.

Helmut Terra

(then "Nanking") in July 1937 when the Japanese took Beijing. The Chinese Geological Society, which was the agency of the Chinese government responsible for the Peking Man fossils, moved with some of its collections and most of its personnel to Nanjing as well. It left the Peking Man fossils behind, in the belief that they would be safe under the aegis of the American-backed Peking Union Medical College. Nanjing fell to advancing Japanese forces in December 1937, in a rout known variously as the "Massacre of Nanking" or the "Rape of Nanking." Some three hundred thousand Chinese civilians were killed, and the members of the Nationalist government fled to the western city of Chungking. The Peking Man fossils stayed securely in their safe in the medical school in Beijing during this tumultuous time.

The director of the Geological Survey of China, Dr. Wen-hao Weng, despite the disorganization of his activities caused by the war, continued to take his duties regarding the safety of the Peking Man fossils seriously. It was he, along with Davidson Black and Zhongjian Yang, who an excited Wenzhong Pei cabled when he had discovered the first skull of Peking Man back in 1929. Weng, based now in Chungking, wrote a letter to Dr. Henry Houghton, president of Peking Union Medical College, on January 10, 1941.13 In it he says that "we are ready to agree to have them [the fossils] shipped to America and entrusted to some scientific institution for temporary safe-keeping during the war period in China after which they should be returned." The letter arrived while Houghton was in Shanghai and he did not read it until his return to Beijing. Weidenreich had already been advocating such a course of action. On April 10, 1941, Houghton writes,14 "Some weeks ago Dr. Weidenreich raised the question with me as to whether or not it might be possible or practicable, with the consent of the officials of National Geological Society and of the Chinese National Government, to remove the human material and artefacts to some one of the great museums in the United States, there to be held in custody for the duration of the war." After talking to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, he says rather brusquely that he "came to the conclusion that it would not be in order to do so." Weng's letter then reopened the issue.

Lanpo Jia and the Chinese researchers who had worked at Longgushan naturally considered Franz Weidenreich, professor of anatomy and the inheritor of Davidson Black's honorary directorship of the Cenozoic Research Laboratory, to be the man in charge of deciding whether the Peking Man fossils should stay in China or go to the United States for safekeeping. They had no way of knowing that an internal power struggle was going on between Weidenreich and Henry Houghton. Although Weng had also written to Weidenreich and Pei about the need to move the fossils either to Chungking or to the United States, it was Houghton who had to make the final decision. Weng wrote to Houghton that he had asked Weidenreich and Pei "to consult your [Houghton's] opinion for an early decision and mak[e] all necessary arrangements on our behalf."15

Henry S. Houghton had come to Beijing in 1918 from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore to head Peking Union Medical College. It had been he who years previously had attempted to dissuade Davidson Black from researching fossils and "mysterious caves." In his reply to the Rockefeller Foundation written on April 10, 1941,16 it is clear that his low opinion of the value of the Peking Man fossils had not changed. Houghton, in discussing the question of safeguarding the most important collection of fossil hominids at that time in existence, describes the fossils as "somewhat parallel . . . to our unique collection of Chinese medical books." In turning down Weng's request to move the fossils out of Beijing, Houghton gave a number ofreasons: (1) the Japanese had control over northern China and would not recognize any agreements or permissions from the Nationalist government, (2) the Japanese controlled all customs inspections of shipments leaving Beijing, (3) the fossils would likely be seized if an attempt were made to export them secretly, and (4) the U.S. government, for whom Houghton presumed to speak on the basis of his contacts with the Beijing embassy, "cannot in the nature of the circumstances extend any aid or countenance to the removal of property to which the Chinese National Government has title." Houghton's rationalizations for doing nothing about the Peking Man fossils were based on his real reason, his fifth point, quoted here in its entirety because, as history was to show, it was so utterly incorrect:

On the other hand, it does not seem to me that these specimens, unique and valuable as they are, are in particular danger of destruction if they remain in the custody of the College. They have no sale value and at the worst could only be confiscated and taken elsewhere. In such cases the end result would be negotiations for their return to the Chinese government to which they belong, and a judgment on such a matter must necessarily be held in abeyance until we know more about the end results of current hostilities.17

Houghton replied to Weng that removal of the Peking Man fossils was "wholly out of the question."

Franz Weidenreich had, since early 1941, written a series of letters and memoranda to Houghton arguing for action on the Peking Man fossil problem. By April, Houghton had had enough. He dispatched Weidenreich back to New York and sent his letter of April 10, 1941, to the chairman of the China Medical Board, with him.18 Weidenreich took his research notes and plaster casts but left his library and the original fossils in the medical school. He clearly intended to come back, but he was not to see China again.

In public, Weidenreich said to all his medical school and research colleagues that now that he had completed his primary observations on the fossils, he would go to the United States to complete his monographs on Peking Man. He personally took responsibility for the decision to leave the Peking Man fossils in the medical school, even though he had fought in private with Henry Houghton and with the U.S. embassy for a positive response to Dr. Weng's request. His public statement that he could not ensure the safety of the fossils since he did not travel in any official governmental capacity was true. Even his citizenship was in doubt.19 The embassy had apparently agreed to consider him a U.S. citizen, but there was a question of whether Houghton would support him.20 Weidenreich was perhaps also mindful of the criticism voiced against von Koenigswald when he brought the Javanese fossils to Beijing. The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to continue Weidenreich's salary and he was offered a visiting position at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A large send-off party was held in his honor at Lockhart Hall of the medical school and soon thereafter he sailed for the United States. By early June he was in New York. Wenzhong Pei took over the administrative responsibilities for the Cenozoic Research Laboratory.

In July 1941, soon after Weidenreich had arrived in New York, U.S. intelligence broke the Japanese diplomatic code. American officials learned from intercepted correspondence that the Japanese were planning a major escalation of the war in China and that they intended to advance southward into Indochina and Thailand later in the year. Any pretense of avoiding confrontation in China was now lost. Perhaps partly for this reason, partly because Dr. Weng of the Geological Survey made a direct plea to the U.S. ambassador, and partly because the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Raymond Fosdick, had agreed to "talk over with his friends in the State Department the possibility of safe removal of the Cenozoic mate-rial,"21 the Americans decided in September 1941 to provide safe transport for the Peking Man fossils out to a temporary home in the United States. Apparently, it was not a priority, however, particularly since Dr. Houghton was locally in charge of the operation; nothing happened for some three months. Then in late November 1941, Ms. Claire Hirschberg (later Taschdjian), Weidenreich's secretary, told Mr. Hu that he should box up the Peking Man fossils for shipment. Mr. Hu confirmed this with Dr. Pei and began the work with an anatomy department technician, Mr. Yan-

qing Ji.22

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  • myla
    Where are hominid fossils kept for safe keeping?
    7 hours ago

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