Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dragon Bones: The Mystery of the Peking Man

A Lost Civilization

At some point in the process of transfer, the most important evidence in the world concerning early mans evolution mysteriously went missing during the fall of 1941. There have been many theories put forth explaining how the fossils disappeared.

There is little known about what happened to the fossils after they were packed in two large wooden crates at the PUMC. According to several witnesses, the crates were stored for up to two days at the building before college administrator, Dr. Trevor Bowen, drove them to the U.S. Legation in Peking three weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Most of the remaining staff at PUMC agreed that it was likely the fossils made it to the U.S. Marine compound, even though there was no record of its arrival. However, what is known is that the crates never made it onto the U.S.S. President Harrison bound for America, because the Japanese sunk the boat enroute to the port city of Chingwangtao.

U.S.S. President Harrison
U.S.S. President Harrison
Shapiro described one theory, which suggested that a group of evacuating Marines were ordered to ensure the safe transit of the fossils. The soldiers took the crates with them on a train bound for Tientsin, China. Along the journey, Japanese troops stopped the train, boarded it and began ransacking the luggage compartment where the fossils were believed to have been stored. The crates were allegedly scattered and lost during the takeover.

Boaz and Ciochon claimed to have recently uncovered an interview of two U.S. Marines, taken in 1945, that sheds light on what happened. The two soldiers admitted that they delivered two crates, believed to contain the Peking Man fossils, to a Swiss warehouse in the port city of Chingwangtao. The men suggested that the crates were held at the warehouse awaiting shipment to the U.S. Although the story is intriguing, it has never been confirmed and there is no evidence that the fossils were ever held in the warehouse or shipped to the U.S.

Probably the most interesting story yet, concerned a Chicago broker named Christopher Janus who was determined to solve the case of the missing fossils. Janus offered a $5,000 reward for the recovery of the Peking Man in the mid-1970s. He received an unusual response from an unidentified woman who claimed she had the fossils and demanded that they meet on the top of the Empire State Building in New York City.

Janus curiosity was aroused and he met the woman at the designated spot. The woman claimed that her deceased husband, a Marine during World War II, returned home after the war with a box containing fossils, thought to be the Peking Man. She showed Janus a photograph of the bones to support her claim and told him that she would hand the bones over for a staggering $500,000.

Janus managed to persuade the woman to loan him the photo so he could show it to an expert. Professor of Anthropology Harry L. Shapiro examined the photo to see if fossil casts matched the bones in the picture. He found only one interesting piece in the entire lot, a skull that resembled one found at Chou Kou Tien. However, it was difficult to be certain if it was actually one of the fossils because the picture was not very clear. Janus also showed the picture to several other experts in the field, some of whom were convinced that it was a skull excavated from Chou Kou Tien.

The incident gained a great deal of attention from the press and some scientists who were eager to study the actual skull up close. However, the anonymous woman became spooked by all the publicity and was never seen again. There is no telling if what she had was the real thing.  

Other theories have circulated over the last half-century. Some believe that the fossils were buried for safekeeping in Chou Kou Tien or in the Marine compound, to be dug up after the war. There are others who think that the Japanese confiscated them from the Marines when they overtook the barracks during the outbreak of the war between Japan and America. Another theory is that the fossils were actually smuggled out of the Peking to America.

The theories are numerous but largely unsubstantiated. The fact is, no one will ever know the truth of what happened to the priceless remains of Peking Man.

Part of Missing Peking Man
Part of Missing Peking Man

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