Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dragon Bones: The Mystery of the Peking Man

Drug Store Fossils

Skull and reconstruction of Sinanthropus pekinesis
Skull and reconstruction of Sinanthropus pekinesis
 

During the late 19th century, amateur fossil collectors and professional paleontologists knew that some of the more interesting specimens of bones and teeth from prehistoric animals, such as elephants, three-toed horses and rhinoceroses could be found in Chinese pharmacies. The artifacts were usually collected in quarries and mines by peasants throughout Chinas provinces and sold to apothecaries where they were ground up and sold as cures for a variety of diseases. The skeletal pieces were genuinely believed to be the bones of dragons and thought to have magical healing properties that could cure anything from epilepsy to demonic possession.  

One of the first to collect the dragon bones was a German physician K.A. Haberer, who traveled to Peking (now Beijing), China in 1899, during the Boxer rebellion. It was a perilous time, yet it did not daunt Haberer in his passionate pursuit of valuable fossils. He was able to collect a substantial amount of specimens before he was forced to leave the country for his safety.

Dragon Bones by van Oosterzee
Dragon Bones by van Oosterzee
When Haberer returned home to Munich, he gave his collection to a professor of paleontology, Max Schlosser, to be examined. According to Penny van Oosterzee in her book, Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man, the collection represented approximately 90 mammal forms from a variety of different groups ranging from several-million-year-old antelopes to saber-toothed tigers and hyenas. It was an impressive collection, but perhaps the most intriguing specimen was a human-like molar that Haberer had found in a Peking pharmacy.

The tooth was believed to be about 2 million years old, and was perfectly preserved. Schlosser thought it possibly originated from a new genus of human, but he was not certain. The discovery did not warrant a great deal of attention and was eventually set aside. Schlosser didnt know at the time that his hunch was accurate, nor did he know that he was in possession of one of the worlds oldest human fossils. It would take more than two decades before the ancient tooths significance would be recognized.  

Johan Gunnar Andersson
Johan Gunnar Andersson
Fascinated by Schlossers and Haberers discoveries, a Swedish geologist and mining specialist on assignment in China named Johan Gunnar Andersson, 40, began his own search for unique fossils. In 1914, he started hunting for artifacts in Peking pharmacies and after several years he moved on to investigating actual dragon bone sites. One of the places he was particularly interested in was a place about 30 miles from Peking known as Chicken Bone Hill, named for the enormous quantity of bird bones excavated in the area.

Over the subsequent two years Andersson divided his time excavating the area around Chicken Bone Hill and another site located in northwest China, known as Pao Te Hsien. In 1921 he enlisted the help of Australian paleontologist Otto Zdansky in excavating the sites. That same year, while digging at Chicken Bone Hill, a local man approached Andersson and Zdansky and told them of a place several hundred yards away that had a bigger collection of dragon bones. Taking the mans advice the paleontologists followed him to a limestone quarry in Chou Kou Tien known as Dragon Bone Hill and immediately began digging.

Panoramic view of Chou Kou Tien from Shapiro book
Panoramic view of Chou Kou Tien from Shapiro book
 

Harry L. Shapiro stated in his book Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure, that after a brief period, the men found a fossilized pig jaw and the next day a richer array including rhinoceros teeth and the jawbones of hyenas and bears. It wasnt long before their fossil collection grew to an impressive size, representing a variety of extinct species of mammals millions of years old. Anderson told his colleague that he believed they would stumble across an even bigger find. His prediction was right on target.

Peking Man by Harry Shapiro
Peking Man by Harry Shapiro
The fossil collection was sent to Sweden to be examined by Professor Wiman of the Museum of Uppsala. It took several years for him to inspect the enormous quantity of specimens, but it proved well worth the effort. In October 1926, Wiman sent Andersson a letter claiming that he came across two teeth, a molar and premolar in the collection that were of particular interest. He suggested that the teeth were hominid or man-like and were of significant importance. Interestingly, the teeth appeared to resemble those found by Haberer during the turn of the century.

Teeth of Peking Man
Teeth of Peking Man
The news delighted Andersson and Zdansky who gave the teeth to the head of the Peking Union Medical Colleges department of anatomy, Dr. Davidson Black, hoping that he would confirm Wimans opinion. Black not only confirmed Wimans view, but also got involved in one of the worlds largest excavations searching for the origin of man. The hunt led to discoveries that would significantly change what had been known of mans evolution and cause a worldwide sensation. It would also result in one of the biggest scientific mysteries of the century.

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