February 11, 2006

The second search for Peking Man

Many cranial fossils have strange histories. Some, like Piltdown Man and Galley Hill and Vogelherd persist for decades as important prehistoric remains, even though later dating reveals them to be much more recent than originally thought. Others like Kennewick Man become objects of a legal battle as to whether or not they should be buried and lost for science, or studied. And there are others like Combe Capelle who was lost during World War II, and then found decades later.

There are casts of all important skulls, so the loss of a specimen does not mean that it can no longer be studied by anthropologists. Unfortunately, newer techniques involving the extraction of DNA from bones only work with real skulls; hence, the urgency to rediscover misplaced fossils.

The Peking Man was lost during World War II as well. Thankfully, Franz Weidenreich had made casts of the skulls only years after they had been brought to the ground, and these casts have played a key role in subsequent discussions on human origins.

Now, a news story hints that Peking Man may not have been lost forever:
ZHOUKOUDIAN, CHINA -- For more than two decades, Yang Shoukai had hoarded his secret, unsure what to do with a possible clue to one of China's most baffling mysteries.

As construction supervisor on the site of an abandoned U.S. military barracks in Tianjin in 1982, he had discovered a strange cement box in the basement of the old wartime barracks. He tried to dig it up, but lacked the proper tools, and the box was buried under a new medical laboratory.

Mr. Yang, now retired and in poor health, is convinced that the box contains a 500,000-year-old archeological treasure that China has hunted for in vain since the Second World War: the missing skulls of Peking Man, one of the most famous links in the evolution of prehistoric humans.


Chinese specialists have conducted many failed searches for the skulls, but the new committee is optimistic. "I think we will find them," said Dong Cuiping, vice-director of the Peking Man Museum.

"Since 1941, the searches were always done by non-governmental people. Now this work is on the government's agenda. We're drawing more attention from society, and more clues - not only from China but outside China too."

If the skulls are recovered, they could become the basis for a major breakthrough in the understanding of human evolution, she said.

"When we first found the skulls, our science was not very advanced. Now we have much better technology. If we recover them, we could make new scientific discoveries."

Let's hope they succeed.

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