|The dig at Choutienchou was about to be abandoned. Fortunately one of the about to be unemployed archeologists found a blackened tooth and claimed that it was evidence of the Missing Link – Peking Man. So where did the supporting evidence go and why did Richard Nixon tell Mao si Tung that he knew where it was?|
When I think of Collectors the brain seems to throw a switch that focusses on lonely men in cavernous rooms , probably wearing bottle bottom glasses, peering myopically at chipped pieces of pottery or looking bug-eyed at crumbling pieces of parchment. Well, that’s how I see it anyway. The archetype of my misconception must be the paleontologist. My view of the people who collect bones is probably coloured, or discoloured, by a visit I once made to Dr. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum. Chris, at the time, was an energetic thirty something and enthusiastic about anything to do with his chosen subject. What did freak me out a piece was his office. I sat in front of a desk littered with fragments of bone, surrounded by skeletons and skulls, which all seemed to have an interest in my fragile body. Even the window ledges where, in normal offices you would find the occasional sun roasted pot plant, there was a jumble of thigh bones and other formerly articulated parts. The reason I was there was to research the background story of a pile of old bones known collectively as The Peking Man. Sinanthropus Pekinesis if you want to be posh. Dr. Stringer rather put a damper on the whole idea of the bones being part of the earliest man to strut his stuff around 700,000 years ago in the Chinese outback. He was probably right but that doesn’t detract from the story surrounding their discovery.
The story begins some years before the startling claim was first made in 1928 that man’s earliest ancestor lived in a detached cave just outside Peking. Sixteen years earlier, near the little Sussex village of Piltdown, Abbe Teilard de Chardin and local amateur paleontologist, Edward Dawson, were beavering away in the limestone workings near an abandoned quarry when they discovered a part of a skull. Quick as a flash the ‘pro’ de Chardin identified it as the ‘missing link’. Ever since Charles Darwin had posited his theory on evolution there had been an unseemly scramble to find the skeleton of the monkey that climbed down a tree and became a man. In America Dr. Davidson Black was also in the hunt. He received a small stipend from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct anthropological studies. But he wanted more. He was a bit disappointed when he actually examined the Piltdown man and found that it was an assortment of bones from various parts of the world that were not necessarily of human or near human extraction. But, hey!, as they say – who cares? It helped Black’s sales pitch when he spoke to the money men at the Foundation. He had heard about the promising results coming out of a dig in a place called Choukoutien, a short bus ride from Peking, and he wanted in. A friend on the board of the Foundation secured him the necessary backing and Dr. Davidson Black set up office in the Peking Union Medical College. He wasn’t exactly bowled over by what he found there. Although the excavation had been more or less on-going since 1903 all they had to show for their labours was a bagful of bones and a dirty great hole in the mountainside. And things were getting decidedly dodgy throughout the country. Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Chek were going head to head and the directors of the Rockefeller foundation were getting twitchy. They decided that when the dig closed down for the winter they would pull the plug on the whole operation. Then, believe it or nor, just as that was about to happen , one of the diggers, Dr. Bohlin from Sweden, found a blackened, crystallised tooth and Black instantly claimed it to be proof that Peking Man existed.
Just to make sure everyone believed him he got in touch with Teilard de Chardin who arrived, looked at the tooth and without further ado agreed that the Missing Link had been discovered. Within weeks, when the dig restarted the following Spring, Black authenticated a part of a skull and as more and more bones were unearthed, built up a replica of man’s earliest ancestor. His work was accepted and lauded throughout the fossils collecting world. Then, working late one night in 1934, Black inconveniently collapsed and died.
The Rockefeller Centre sent Dr. Weidenreich, a German Jew, to make a report on Black’s endeavours. What he found forced the Rockefeller Foundation to draw a veil over Black’s work. The fossils were nothing more than the mortal remains of apes that had frequented the caves half a million years or so ago. Imaginatively Black had reconstructed them into a reasonable facsimile of a man/ape. Dr. Weidenreich would have liked to publish a report but he was on the run from the Nazis and was persuaded not to court trouble by blowing the whistle. A further problem was that the Chinese were getting sticky. They quite liked the idea that early man came down from the tree in their back garden. While the Chinese government and Rockefeller went head to head the Japanese were preparing a little surprise of their own. Rockefeller decide to bring the Peking Man to America where they could exercise some control over it. The USS President Harrison with Captain Orel Pierson at the helm was dispatched to Peking to bring the fossils back. The specimens were packed in a couple of Army foot lockers and, guarded by a detachment of US Marines under Colonel Ashurst, barely a chop suey ahead of the invading Imperial Japanese Army, headed by train for Teintsin, a port on the Yellow Sea. And then it happened.
Captain Pierson ran his ship aground rather than let the Japanese have it and the precious relics were never seen again.
Or were they?
A Naval Intelligence Officer Lt. Fairservis swore that he had seen the missing fossils in the Imperial Japanese War Museum in Tokyo – after the war. Then Dr. Pet, one of the original diggers at Choukoutien, was also willing to swear that he had seen the fossils in a museum – in New York!
There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the sixties but it was mainly movement disguised as action. When President Nixon made his well publicised trip to China to meet Mao Tse Tung in 1973, Mao asked Nixon to return the Peking Man to his descendants. Nixon promised to do what he could and caused a flurry of paperwork but nothing came of it. The only person still interested in the fossils whereabouts was a man describing himself as a New York business man, Christopher Janus. The plot thickened when he reported that he had had a call from a woman claiming to be the wife of the Sergeant in command of the 4th. Marine entrusted with getting the Peking Man out of the country. She said that there was such a fuss about guarding the two foot lockers that her husband had decided they must contain gold and precious stones. In the confusion engendered by the marauding Japanese Army he had hidden the lockers and substituted two others. Although the lockers made it to the docks and on board the Harrison the Sergeant himself had been captured and interned in a POW camp. After the war he had recovered the lockers and discreetly had them shipped back to America. You can hardly imagine the shock when he found that he had been risking his life for a pot pourri of fossilised bones. The Sergeant had recently died and his widow had heard about Janus’s search for the fossils and agreed to meet him on top of the Empire State Building. As one would. There she showed him a photograph of a number of assorted bones in a box which just might have been what he was looking for. At that moment a Japanese tourist took a photograph, the woman freaked out and ran off. Her body was found floating in the Hudson a few days later.
It was this story which attracted me to the subject. I started writing letters to the usual suspects, the Rockefeller Foundation, President Nixon, (he was having troubles of his own and didn’t bother to answer), The Peking Union Medical College, Captain Orel Pierson, Captain of the Harrison, AB Halloran a deckhand on the same ship, the Marine Corp and anyone else I could think of that might be able to help. Rockefeller Foundation sent a tame paleontologist to meet me. We had a wonderfully British pot of tea in Brown’s Hotel where he pooh-poohed my suggestions that there might be more to the Peking Man story than was at first thought. I also received letters and pamphlets from the Marine Department and a confusing letter from the Medical College denying all knowledge of the subject. Captain Pierson was more interesting and as I was about to go to LA on a business trip I pencilled in a meeting with him at his home in Santa Barbara. When I finally managed to get there he was very old and frail. But he wasn’t ruling anything out. He admitted that he had never actually seen the foot lockers containing the fossils but his diversion to Tientsin was specifically to pick them, and several other packages, up and return them to the States before the Japanese could get their hands on them. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear but at least he wasn’t giving me the run-around, We corresponded until his death in 1994. His theory was that the Japanese had taken the lockers after he had scuttled the ship and, when they found only a few old bones, threw them on the fire. He had watched them do this with several crates they had liberated from his ship. The mystery of what happened to the Man from Peking is on-going. Many books have been written and at least a couple of TV shows. Both of which seem to have been dramatically under researched. The big question is, Were They the Real McCoy? Or a fraud engineered by Dr, Davidson Black and his ecclesiastical buddy, Abbe Teilard de Chardin? Informed opinion leans towards the fraud theory but…….?
A number of alternatives have been suggested for the final resting place of Peking Man. On the night of the 8th December 1941 two lighters carrying unmanifested goods exploded in Tientsin harbour. It has been suggested that the fossils were aboard and this was their spectacular end. USS Harrison was only a decoy sent to make it appear that the Rockefeller Foundation wanted to bring the find to America. If so why didn’t they just admit that the lighters blowing up was an accident and their beloved fossils had been unfortunately destroyed? Another theory is that General MacArthur might have taken them. I’m not sure why he would want to do this but as they say – A collector is a Collector is a Collector and maybe he had a yen to be the man with humanity’s progenitor in a secret room where he could retire for a good gloat when he was feeling unloved. Then there is the idea that they might even now be in a repository deep in the bowels of the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road. Dr. Halstead had worked in the Museum at one time and a letter appeared in The Times, with his name attached, on November 25th. 1979 claiming that the fake Piltdown Man specimens were planned and constructed, with the connivance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the Natural History Museum. Maybe they have a special room there for Missing Links. Perhaps Peking Man, Piltdown Man and that other specimen, found by another Rockefeller sponsored anthropologist, Professor Dubois, Java Man and other tainted examples of homo erectus huddle there in the dark waiting for someone brave enough to unearth them once more. The moral of the story is; if you want to collect big time try paleontology. I’ve started my collection. A mosquito preserved in a chert that I found on the golf course. I’m claiming it is the missing link between flying insects and Golden Eagles. I also have an Ammonite. A winkles uncle?
My other interest is that Discovery Channel are having another look at my research. Fingers crossed.EK
MM August 2005