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December 7, 2009

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Mystery of the missing Peking Man

IN a swirl of snowflakes, the bronze bust of Peking Man is an unflinching sentinel in front of the main entrance of the museum in Beijing's Zhoukoudian Caves on a bitingly cold morning.

It must have been a similar day on December 2, 1929, when paleontologist Pei Wenzhong made his discovery - the first complete skull of Peking Man, or Homo erectus - at the excavation site.

The investigation started in 1921 when Swedish geologist John Gunnar Anderson came to search for animal fossils. Under the guidance of Austrian Otto Zdansky, the first excavations started and two hominid teeth were found in 1926.

They continued when Davidson Black, a Canadian paleoanthropologist working at Zhoukoudian, applied for financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1927. He defined a new species called Sinanthropus pekinensis which was later changed to Homo erectus pekinensis. By 1937 researchers had found 200 human fossils from about 40 individual specimens.

Left of the bronze sculpture is a sign pointing to the "do-it-yourself area," where visitors can glue plastic bones together to replicate the Peking Man skeleton.

The plastic bones are basically all that is left of Peking Man.

German researcher Franz Weidenreich made imprints of the original bones before the Japanese invasion. But the original bones have been missing since 1941 when researchers decided to send them to safety in the United States.

But the fossils disappeared. "I don't believe that they are lost, so it must be possible to find them," said Zhou Guoxing, 74, a former researcher at the Beijing Natural History Museum.

He's a member of the committee to search for the Peking Man, launched in 2005, and has been searching for the fossils for about 40 years.

Japanese theory

He believes the Japanese have the bones. His theory: the cases with the fossils were brought to a US army camp in coastal Qinhuangdao City, 300 kilometers east of Beijing, before they were seized by the Japanese Army. He launched a Sino-Japanese foundation to search for the fossils, but without success.

Other experts believe the bones were sunk with the Japanese freighter Awa Maru in 1945.

New dating methods enabled Chinese scientists to reveal in March that Peking Man possibly dated back 700,000 years ago, 200,000 years older than previously thought.


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