“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Joni Mitchell sang in 1970, decrying our modern frenzy of development. But perhaps no one feels this loss more acutely than one of our early ancestors. The Peking Man lived more than 400,000 years ago, he learned how to make fire and use tools, and he was widely fêted when his remains were found. Afterlife was good…until his ungrateful descendants lost the precious bones, that is. Today, many believe the Peking Man ingloriously resides beneath a concrete slab dotted with cars in Qinhuangdao, China.
The saga all began in the 1920s, when explorers discovered a series of clefts at a site called Zhoukoudian west of Beijing (it was made an official UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987). The first Westerner to explore the area was a Swede named J. Gunnar Andersson, whose curiosity was piqued after he heard locals talking about “dragon bones” that could be found in the cliffs. He publicized his discovery of a quartz rock he thought might be evidence of an early human tool, and in 1929, a full excavation began.
What archeologists uncovered became one of the most important fossil finds of that era. They discovered pieces of around 40 Homo erectus skeletons—including skulls, teeth, leg bones, and more—that are now believed to be at least 400,000 years old, possibly much older. Together these remains were called the Peking Man.
The Peking Man offered a huge leap forward in our understanding of the evolution of the human species. Prior to this, similar bones discovered on the Indonesian island of Java were thought to be evidence of the development of apes. But Peking Man find made it clear these were in fact early ancestors of Homo sapiens. Animal remains and stone tools also found at the site confirmed these humans were able to create and use tools—and possibly fire.
A dispatch to The New York Times on Nov. 27, 1933, explained the importance of these discoveries. “Hitherto, it had been assumed from his abnormally small, flattened skull that the Peking Man was only slightly above the ape in the scale of intelligence,” the article reads.
But anthropologist and professor G. Elliot Smith explained the findings revealed so much more. “It now appears that the Peking Man had hands essentially identical with modern man’s and we are justified in the inference that the tools found with the remains of this man were made by him. They correspond entirely with the tools made by other primitive peoples,” Smith told the Times. His feet, however, were lagging behind. “They were not straight, and he must have walked holding his toes in, as the ape does.”
The excavation was moving along swimmingly until the iron tentacles of World War II began to inch toward China. The bones were being held for study at the Peking Union Medical Hospital, which was run by the U.S.—something officials were grateful for after Japan invaded in 1937. But as it increasingly looked like Japan and the U.S. might go to war, administrators began to worry Japanese forces would take over the facility. So, a fateful decision was made: The bones would be boxed up and sent to America for safe-keeping.
The most important of the remains were securely packed into two large crates. The intention was to send these crates back to the U.S. via a naval ship to be entrusted to the American Museum of Natural History. But the last time anyone is sure to have laid eyes on them is when the last box was sealed. From there, the Peking Man vanished without a trace.
As with all good mysteries, many people have theories about what happened. Some say the bones were stolen in a Japanese raid. Others say they were put on a ship that was sunk in the Pacific. Many believe they never left China at all, and were buried at some point, for safe-keeping or more nefarious purposes.
“It could be that the bones were hidden before they even left Beijing. Or it could be that they were shipped to Tianjin,” paleontologist Gao Xing told the Times in 2005. “But some people also think that somebody found them before they were put on the train and buried or hid them in Fangshan. There isn’t specific evidence.”
The most concrete tip came from a U.S. Marine, Richard Bowen, who was stationed in a port city in China after World War II ended. In 2010, his son sent a letter on his behalf to the paleoanthropologist and National Geographic explorer Lee Berger claiming his father thought he may have found one of the boxes while at a military base in Qinhuangdao in 1947. His battalion was part of the rear guard of the retreating U.S. Army. After being surrounded by the Communist 8th Route Army, they began digging foxholes for protection.
“In this nightly digging process, we dug a lot of holes. In one of them we found a box that was full of bones. At night it gave us a little scare and we filled in that hole and dug another. Shortly after this we evacuated the area,” Bowen said.
His story checked out and archeologists, with Bowen’s help, began to pinpoint the area in Qinhuangdao where this find may have occurred. What they found was disheartening. The area is now an industrialized haven, filled with buildings and—you guessed it—paved over with concrete parking lots.
Officials deemed it too disruptive to dig up the area looking for this box. However, the site is set to undergo another development phase sometime soon and, when that happens, officials have promised to keep an eye out for this treasure and for excavation opportunities. Even then, the chances that the box and its contents survived the area’s extensive development in the 1970s are slim.
In the meantime, the bones aren’t completely lost. Casts were made of all of the archeological treasures before they were packed up. But the details on these reproductions aren’t fine enough to determine certain things, like whether or not our dear old relatives were cannibals (although some tell-tale signs might be the work of hyenas, instead).
Excavations continue at Zhoukoudian, but the most important finds that have come from the site—and possibly the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century—remain missing. Hopefully, they won’t be lost forever.