By the Evidence: Memoirs 1932-1951
It is odd that whereas man’s knowledge of the stars was one of the earliest forms of science his knowledge of his own origins can hardly be called scientific even today. Probably even the most ambitious student of human fossil bones never expected to win a Nobel Prize. It is a study that does indeed stimulate ambition, though not, unfortunately, scientific acumen.
There have been so many excitements over the discovery of fossil man that some of the earlier discoveries are in danger of being forgotten. Dr. Harry Shapiro is a distinguished anthropologist who gives us an excellent account of Peking man, now called Homo erectus, whose remains were discovered in 1926 and lost again in 1941. Often anthropologists have to deal with single isolated skulls or bones but at Peking there were the remains of forty or more individuals, hunter-gathering people living at least 500,000 years ago. A special interest of the find was that some of the animal bones in the cave were burned, so these people knew the use of fire. This fire is actually the earliest evidence of any “cultural” or “intellectual” activities by man, other than the manufacture and use of tools, which also occur in the caves. The brain of Peking man was almost exactly half-way between those of apes and men, so he comes rather close to being the “missing link” that has been so often sought.
The useful pieces of information the Peking fossils give about our ancestors have been rather obscured by the flurry raised over their subsequent loss. The story is recorded in full dramatic detail by Dr. Shapiro. He tells an excellent tale including a very good account of Peking man and how he lived, leading up to the saga of the loss of the bones. In November 1941 they were in the care of a laboratory at the Peking Union Medical College, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. With the growing menace of war the bones were packed and steps were taken to transfer them for safety to America. But it was too late and Dr. Shapiro recounts the evidence of how the cases were lost when a marine detachment in charge of them was ordered to surrender in December. Were they thrown away by the Japanese, or stolen? Do they still exist? No one knows, but there are some clues, and Shapiro and others are still following them, not without hope.
Sad though this loss may be, we are still left with casts of the bones, useful for many purposes. In any case, more recent finds have pushed our knowledge of man’s origins back long before the Homo erectus stage. Dr. Louis Leakey, who died in 1972, has been responsible more than anyone else for the finds of new evidence. Among the many writings he has given us are two excellent autobiographies. His White African was first published in 1937, and later republished in 1966 and 1973. He called it a “potboiler” written to make …