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The Peking Man Fossils

Peking Man skull
This reconstruction of Peking Man's skull was made by German anthropologist Franz Weidenreich. It's lucky he did, because Peking Man's original remains have been lost for decades. DEA/L. DE MASI/De Agostini/Getty Images

In the chaos of wartime, valuable artworks often go missing. But under these turbulent circumstances, scientific treasures can disappear, too.

The modern saga of the Peking Man began in 1921, when Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson learned about a fossil-rich site near the mining town of Zhoukoudian. (This spot is located roughly 26 miles — or 42 kilometers — southwest of central Beijing.) Four years later, some material that his colleague Otto Zdansky had recovered there were identified as the teeth of a human-like creature, or "hominid."

Zhoukoudian turned out to be a hotbed for hominid fossils. During the 1920s and 1930s, archaeologists dug up numerous teeth, some lower skeleton bones, 11 lower jaws and components of 14 different craniums. We now know that these came from the species Homo erectus, but at the time, scientists thought they represented a never-before-seen primate. Informally, these researchers called it the "Peking Man."

Before 1941, the fossils were housed at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. During their stay, German anthropologist Franz Weidenreich had the foresight to make casts of several bones. It's a good thing he did.

Worried that the Japanese would soon conquer Beijing, China got in touch with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Manhattan staff agreed to hold onto the Peking Man bones for temporary safekeeping until the war ended. But after the fossils were loaded up into crates in December 1941, they disappeared.

In losing the Peking Man remains, the Chinese people lost a national treasure. Theories on the fossils' whereabouts are a dime a dozen. Some believe the bones now reside in Japan, others think they made it to the states before going AWOL and still others believe they were buried under a parking lot in Qinhuangdao.