About 1,000 years ago, rumors spread that dragon bones were found around Zhoukoudian Town in Beijing. Dragon bone powder was believed to be a magical potion that healed wounds. A mountain in Zhoukoudian was called Longgu Mountain, meaning the Mountain of Dragon Bones.
Hundreds of years later, experts began to speculate that the "dragon bones" might actually be the fossils of ancient creatures that had actually existed. Geologists, paleontologists and archeologists came from all over the world to dig and probe.
In 1921, scientists finally discovered the remains of Homo erectus in a cave on the mountain. In 1929, with a cranium unearthed, the famous Peking Man was introduced to the world.
Although the first cranium was subsequently lost in war and never found, a museum in Zhoukoudian displays many other fossils and relics. The caves are also well preserved. Known as the Zhoukoudian Ruins, the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Unlike the Ming tombs, always packed with tourists, Zhoukoudian remains somewhat ignored by comparison, probably because the site is further from the downtown area.
The site is composed of two parts. One is a museum; the other are the caves where relics and fossils were unearthed. The caves, now under restoration work, will reopen to the public next year.
In the museum, the exhibits are displayed in chronological order. Visitors can see in the first exhibit hall the replicas of the Peking Man fossils and real fossils of animals from the same era, dated at between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago.
One of the most noticeable exhibits displays the replicas of a thigh bone and phalanxes. The real fossils were discovered by paleontologist Pei Wenzhong (1904-82) in 1936 and 1937. Along with the replicas of the Cranium II and III, the exhibits give visitors a general idea of the bone structure of Homo erectus.
According to scientific research, Peking Man lived during the Stone Age. His brain capacity was about 80 percent of that of modern-day humans, and his height ranged between 15 and 15.6 meters.
The lifespan of Peking Man was short. Nearly 70 percent of our human predecessors at the time died before the age of 14, and only 4.5 percent managed to live to 50.
The second hall in the museum displays how Peking Man lived, using fire to cook food, hunting animals and picking fruit, and making stone vessels.
During that era, the climate was colder and the environment was filled with large animals such as megaloceros — an ancient breed of deer that looked something like moose and woolly rhinoceros.
Later, when the climate warmed and became more humid, animals such as macaca robusta — an ancient breed of macaque — and buffalos migrated and lived in the area. In general, Peking Man was well supplied with the basics of living.
In the third hall, the timeframe leaps to the Mesolithic era, when Archaic Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens, known as the "Upper Cave Man," lived in the area of Zhoukoudian in caves above those where the Peking Man was discovered.
In 1933 and 1934, Pei discovered three complete craniums, some cranium pieces, jaw bone pieces and molars. The fossils belonged to eight different bodies.
Tools were also discovered. A fine stone needle with an eye on the top showed that Upper Cave Man knew how to make thin fibers and sew clothes. Processed animal bones, stones beads and shells indicated a culture that favored personal adornment.
The real fossils of the craniums, however, were lost along with those of Peking Man.
During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), Beijing was occupied by the Japanese army. After years of negotiation, the Kuomintang government reached an agreement with the United States to transport the fossils to the US.
On the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the fossils were escorted by US Marines to Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province to be put on a ship leaving for the US. The Japanese garrison launched a sudden attack, and the soldiers and fossils were all captured.
It was the last time the fossils were seen. After the end of World War II, there were many guesses about their whereabouts. Some people believed they had been destroyed during the war; others believed they had been taken to Japan. Other speculation said that the fossils were buried under a pine tree in Ritan Park in Beijing or had been lost in the sinking of the Japanese liner Awa Maru.
Although new fossils, including teeth and jawbones, were unearthed in Zhoukoudian after the war, people have never stopped looking for the earliest found craniums.
If you go
How to get there:
Unfortunately, no Metro line reaches the museum. Visitors need to take Bus No. 917 or Fangshan Bus No. 38 to get to the museum. The whole ride takes about three hours, which can perhaps be cut in half by personal auto.