Possible new lead in Peking Man fossils mystery

Mar 25, 2012, 2:01 PM

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – The memories of a World War II-era Marine have renewed hopes of solving one of the greatest archaeological mysteries _ the whereabouts of the lost Peking Man fossils, South African and Chinese scientists said.

In the March edition of a scientific journal published by Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, renowned South African paleontologist Lee Berger and two Chinese colleagues say the fossils may be lying under a parking lot in China’s northern port city of Qinhuangdao where the Marine said he saw two crates of bones in 1947.

Richard M. Bowen described the sighting in memoirs being compiled by his son.

The fossils, found a century ago and believed to hold a key to studies of early mankind, disappeared at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific while destined for safe keeping in the United States.

What Bowen saw in 1947 might have been the fossils at U.S. Camp Holcomb, the researchers said.

Bowen told his son in 2010 about how he dug up wooden crates of relics and used them as a machine gun nest when the base came under attack from tens of thousands of Communist Chinese troops. He was captured in the assault.

The veteran’s family then contacted the South African university reputed for archaeological research that has blazed a trail in contemporary studies on prehistory and has discovered fossils in South Africa’s “Cradle of Mankind” that predate China’s lost “Homo Erectus” samples.

The surviving Marine veteran is reportedly anxiously waiting to hear if his memories and the service records his son is sifting through will end the six-decades hunt for the Peking Man.

Berger of Witwatersrand’s Institute of Human Evolution and co-authors Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing investigated the Marine’s story and “found it to be perhaps the most credible account of the last known sighting of these important fossils,” the Johannesburg university said in a statement.

Despite one of the most intensive searches in the history of archaeological science over six decades, including substantial rewards being offered, no verifiable sign of the whereabouts of the historical objects had emerged earlier, according to the university statement.

The scientists visited Qinhuangdao where Bowen said he last saw the crates, which could have since been reburied beneath what is now a parking lot in a heavily built up area.

“If these were the fossils, they may be lost to history, or they may still be buried under a few feet of asphalt in this Chinese port city,” the university statement said.

The Peking Man fossils went missing around the time of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that brought the United States into World War II.

When Japanese forces were advancing on the Chinese capital, now Beijing, it was decided to ship the fossils to the United States. But as some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific conflict intensified, the crates disappeared on the way to the coast.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Possible new lead in Peking Man fossils mystery