THE memories of a World War II-era US Marine have renewed hopes of solving one of the greatest archaeological mysteries - the whereabouts of the Peking Man fossils.
In the latest edition of a journal published by Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, South African paleontologist Lee Berger and two Chinese colleagues say the fossils may be under a parking lot in China's northern port city of Qinhuangdao where the Marine said he saw two crates of bones in 1947. Richard Bowen described the sighting in memoirs being compiled by his son.
The fossils, found a century ago and believed to hold a key to studies of early mankind, disappeared at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. What Bowen saw in 1947 might have been the fossils at US Camp Holcomb, the researchers said.
Bowen told his son in 2010 how he dug up wooden crates of relics and used them as a machine gun nest when the base came under attack from the Chinese People's Liberation Army. He was captured.
His family then contacted the South African university reputed for archaeological research and which has discovered fossils in South Africa's "Cradle of Mankind" that predate China's lost "Homo Erectus" samples.
The Marine is said to be anxiously waiting to hear if his memories and the service records his son is sifting through will end a six-decades hunt for the Peking Man.
Berger and co-authors Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing investigated the story and "found it to be perhaps the most credible account of the last known sighting of these important fossils," the Johannesburg university statement said.
Despite one of the most intensive searches in the history of archaeological science, no verifiable sign of the whereabouts of the objects had emerged earlier.
The scientists visited Qinhuangdao where Bowen said he last saw the crates, which could have since been reburied beneath what is now a parking lot in a heavily built up area.
"If these were the fossils, they may be lost to history, or they may still be buried under a few feet of asphalt in this Chinese port city," the university said.
The Peking Man fossils went missing in 1941. With invading Japanese forces advancing on Beijing, it was decided to ship the fossils to the US. But as some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific conflict intensified, the crates disappeared.