Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dragon Bones: The Mystery of the Peking Man

The Hunt

The moment Andersson gave Black the ancient teeth, he immediately launched a full-scale investigation. After close examination, Black was surprised to find that the teeth were evidence that supported his theory of China being the birthplace of early humans. In a report to his superiors, he claimed that the teeth appeared to be approximately 2 million years old. If his conclusions were correct, they would represent the oldest known evidence of mans existence.

The profound discovery sent shock waves through the scientific community and led to a systematic survey of Chou Kou Tien in the summer of 1927. According to van Oosterzee it was the largest excavation ever undertaken in search of human ancestry. The archeological investigation conducted by scientists and manual workers would continue for 14 years, producing astonishing results.

For more than 100 years, most foreign archeologists digging in China failed to relinquish any artifacts to the Chinese. Instead, they took the priceless objects back to their home countries to be examined and displayed in museums. Unlike his predecessors, Black believed that any specimens found in China inherently belonged to the Chinese. Moreover, he demanded that Chinese scientists involved in the project be on equal standing with foreign scientists, disallowing the display of blatant prejudice that would undermine their scientific work.

Black was appointed the primary coordinator of the excavation whose job was to direct the dig, obtain funds for the vast project and examine any fossilized human remains that might be uncovered. He named the prominent Chinese geologist Dr. V. K. Ting as the projects honorary director. Ting and Black appointed Swedish paleontologist Birgir Bohlin and Chinese geologist C. Li as general directors overseeing the excavation site.

By the fall, those working at the site unearthed a mass of fossilized animals representing various species. Even though the artifacts were significant, it wasnt the evidence they needed to secure more funding for the project. The pressure to find hominid fossils was increasing, especially since the excavation was scheduled to soon end for the season. However, just three days before work was to stop another big discovery was made.

Bohlin found a human-like molar, similar to those found earlier and presented it to an exuberant Davidson Black. After examining the tooth, Black concluded that it was several million years old and had likely come from a new and separate genus of man. He gave the fossilized man the Latin name Sinanthropus pekinensis, literally meaning, Chinese man from Peking.

Black designed a special locket for the tooth and carried it with him around his neck. Several months later he took it to America and had the tooth examined by a variety of experts to validate the date and origin. He also presented it to the Rockefeller Foundation, which was the organization funding the excavation project. Even though they were pleased with the discovery the foundation wanted more evidence before they would provide more money.

Pei Wenzhong
Pei Wenzhong
In the spring of 1928, the excavation commenced with eagerness. Two new Chinese scientists, Pei Wenzhong (anglicized as W.C. Pei) and Dr. Yang Zhongjian (anglicized as C.C. Young) joined the dig. For months scientists and manual workers labored in the clay and limestone without finding any more human remains. Just when their enthusiasm started to wane, they struck upon their most significant find.

Yang Zhongjian
Yang Zhongjian
In November of that year, a portion of the Peking Mans lower jaw, several teeth and skull fragments were discovered just days before the end of the season. For the first time, scientists were better able to piece together what early man must have looked like. It was becoming increasingly clear that the fossilized remains were indeed that of a new genus of man and distinctly different from modern humans. Blacks assumptions were finally confirmed.

Jaws and teeth
Jaws and teeth

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