The mystery of the missing fossils


From the start, the Netherlands Central Institute for Brain Research, as the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience was called when it first came into being, was a very internationally oriented institute, where many a foreigner worked as guest researcher, while the first director, Professor C.U. Ariëns Kappers had appointments as guest professor at various universities abroad, such as the university of Beirut, and Beijing Union Medical College, where he worked from 1923 to 1924.

1923/24 Beijing Union Medical College with medical students (Professor C.U. Ariëns Kappers in light-coloured coat and Professor Councilman, Harvard, with walking stick).


Dick Swaab is standing here in front of the same gate of the Department of Anatomy of Beijing Union Medical College with the organizing committee of the first Prader-Willi conference in China, November 2005.

In those day there were only 2000 students of medicine in the whole of China. Professor Kappers was tasked with teaching brain anatomy in Beijing, for which he had shipped 50 well-wrapped up brains to China, from the Wilhelmina Gasthuis hospital, the forerunner of the current Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam. He was also expected to teach the histology of all organs, something he had not worked on for 15 years. He used the sailing time from Marseille to Shanghai to brush up his knowledge on the subject. The gate in front of which he is posing with his students, and the Anatomical Laboratory behind it, where he used to work, including the dissecting room and the green roofs with their glazed tiles that he liked so much, are still completely intact amidst the enormous new hospital complex.

Beijing Union Medical College instigated the excavations led by Canadian Professor Davidson Black, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, in the caves near Beijing, which yielded the famous finds of a great many fossils of “Beijing Man”, Sinanthropus Pekinensis, who lived some 504,000 to 300,000 years ago in the vicinity of “Dragon Bone Hill”. This was a limestone quarry where for centuries the fossilized bones were collected that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Carbon traces show that these Homo erectus were able to make fire.

After the communist victory in 1949, a visit to this cave in Zhoukoudian was made mandatory for all party executives, as this place was seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization, ‘the classless ultra-society where exploitation did not exist’. For years, the road leading to these caves was the only asphalt road outside of Beijing. However, it is not at all certain that modern Chinese man is a descendant of this Homo erectus. It is far more likely that the modern man who left Africa some 60,000 years ago supplanted this Homo erectus. On the other hand, some local interbreeding would have taken place, as happened in Europe with the Neanderthals.

In 1924, in Haarlem, Kappers made an attempt to bring Professor Davidson Black into contact with Dr Eugène Dubois, the Dutch Royal Netherlands East India Army physician credited with finding the “Java Man” Pithecanthropus erectus fossils in 1891 in the then Dutch East Indies, so that they might compare these two important evolutionary finds. However, the attempt to get these two scholars together failed miserably due to the fact that Dubois was rather paranoid and feared that someone would steal his results. Kappers and Davidson Black made a wasted trip to Teylers Museum in Haarlem, where the fossils were kept in a vault. Dubois had already taken off to his country house in the province of Limburg. He had instructed his amanuensis to only show them the plaster casts of the fossils, but they already had those. The original fossils of Java Man are now on public display in a glass cabinet in the Naturalis Museum in Leiden.


K3. Model of the Beijing man (Homo erectus), department of Anatomy of Beijing Union Medical College.

Davidson Black died in Beijing, in 1934, when the excavation work was still in full swing. The many Beijing Man fossils had been packed up in crates, which, in 1941, on the chaotic day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been loaded onto a train in Beijing by American navy staff, with the aim of getting them (and themselves) safely out of China. The marines were caught and made prisoner of war by the Japanese, who occupied Beijing. The Japanese left the crates by the side of the rail track. No-one knows exactly what happened to them ultimately. The Emperor of Japan has declared he does not have them in his possession. The only thing that remains at the department of Anatomy of Beijing Union Medical College are photographs of the excavations, a cast of a skull and a model of Beijing Man, which bears a remarkable resemblance to modern man.

Hope of recovering the fossils suddenly flared when classified American documents were made public that claimed that they might be on board a Japanese steamer called the Awa Maru. At the end of the war, this ship served as a hospital ship and, under the protection of the Red Cross, carried food for American and allied prisoners of war in Japan. But it was thought the Japanese had taken the opportunity to load Chinese valuables – gold, platinum, diamonds, believed to represent a value of billions of dollars – on board in Singapore, and possibly also the Beijing Man fossils, which may have last been seen in Singapore. However, other sources just mentioned a load of nickel and rubber. The American fleet had been informed that this ship was to sail to Japan unhindered. However, the commander of the American submarine USS Queenfish had not received this information. He thought the Awa Maru was a destroyer and he torpedoed the ship on 1 April 1945 in the Taiwan Strait. There were 2004 people on board. Only one person survived the disaster, Kantora Shimoda, the personal steward of the ship’s captain. It was the third time that he was the only survivor of a torpedoed ship. The court-martial dismissed the charges of “culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty and disobeying the lawful order of a superior of the commander of the American submarine Charles Elliott Loughlin. The court did find Loughlin guilty of negligence, and sentenced him to receive a Secretary of the Navy Letter of Admonition.

In 1980, China embarked on an operation to salvage the Awa Maru treasures that would last 5 years and cost 100 million dollars. Nothing of value was recovered. A re-analysis of all the messages from that time made it clear that the gold that had been on board the Awa Maru had been offloaded in Singapore. Meanwhile, there is still no trace of the fossils of Beijing Man….