On a spring night in 1947, Corporal Richard Bowen’s shovel hit a wooden box.
What that box held could be the answer to one of science’s greatest mysteries, but that night the US marine was more concerned with staying alive. Surrounding Bowen and the other hundred marines was a quarter-of-a-million-strong Chinese army.
In the box, Bowen found bones that perhaps are the very artefacts scientists have been searching for for the past 60 decades – the missing Peking Man fossils.
Now a South African and two Chinese scientists believe they know where the Peking Man fossils lie buried, thanks to the recollections of the 84-year-old US marine veteran. They have published their findings in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science.
The fossils might be lying under a car park in the northern Chinese port city of Qinhaungdao, where Bowen left them 65 years ago.
The old marine’s story came to light when Professor Lee Berger, of Wits University, received an e-mail from Bowen’s son Paul in April 2010.
Paul told Berger he was writing his father’s memoirs and he had told him the story of his strange find.
“Everyone senior in the palaeoanthropology world gets a Peking Man story, with someone claiming they can end the mystery. But this seemed different,” Berger said.
He found that Bowen’s story checked out, and he happened to be stationed where the Peking Man fossils were last seen. The fossils had disappeared in the frantic days before the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
At the time, Japanese troops were advancing on Peking, and Franz Weidenreich, who was honorary director of the Cenozoic Research Laboratory of the Geological Survey of China, decided that the fossils had to be moved from China to the US for safekeeping. They were packed into crates and disappeared somewhere between Peking and Qinhaungdao.
“What happened to them has been lost in the fog of war,” said Berger. Some theories suggest the fossils ended up in the hands of the Japanese, others that they were ground into medicine, or were on board a ship that was sunk. “The search for the Peking Man was in its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, rewards were offered but it didn’t happen,” Berger explained.
Why their loss is important is that they represent the largest collection of fossils of our ancestor Homo erectus ever discovered. They were excavated in Zhoukoudian, China, in the 1920s and 30s and are considered so important to palaeo-anthropology that the Chinese now regard them as a national treasure.
With no word of the fossils, most academics had come to the realisation that they were lost to science – that is until Paul Bowen’s e-mail.
Bowen was sent to China to help evacuate Japanese after World War II.
In the hope of getting home early, he volunteered to go to Qinhaungdao. They landed at an old US marine base called Camp Holcomb, and what they didn’t realise then was that they had been sent behind enemy lines.
Chinese communist troops who were involved in a civil war against the Nationalists began attacking the marines.
Soon they were surrounded by the 8th route Chinese army, and the marines were ordered to dig defensive positions. “If they attacked you were a goner. You talk of Custer? His odds were greater than ours,” explained Bowen.
At night the marines would dig foxholes, and near the old barracks, Bowen stumbled on the strange box. At first he thought little of it.
“At the time,” said Bowen, “I just thought it had something to do with the Chinese fishermen.” He reburied the box, and dug another foxhole. Days later the marines headed back to the US.
With the support of National Geographic, and the blessing of the Chinese government, Berger headed to China in November, 2010 to see if they could find the site.
Qinhaungdao has undergone extensive urban growth, but through Google Maps, a sketch by Bowen and the help of a guide who remembered the camp as a boy, Berger believes they have pinpointed the area. The site is a car park probably about two football fields in size.
Berger hypothesises that the Peking Man bones arrived at the site, under escort by a contingent of US marines. When conditions began to get desperate, the officer in charge ordered them to bury them.
“The problem is that everyone who was there did not survive the war, said Berger. “But this is as ‘smoking gun’ as you can get,” he said.
In about two years’ time there are plans to demolish the carpark to build skyscrapers. It is during this construction that scientists hope to be able to search for the box.
Across in the US, an old marine will be watching with great interest.
“I just hope that box on the beach is still there,” he said. - The Star