Where Dragons Came To Die

By John Kotre

Thirty miles southwest of Beijing (or Peking) lie a hill, a village, and a museum.  The name of the village is Zhoukoudian (once Choukoutien) and the museum is dedicated to one Sinanthropus, or “Peking Man.”  Long ago, dragons came to the hill to die—dragons, a symbol of health and vitality in China.  The dragons left their bones there, and for untold centuries Chinese dug up them up and ground them into fine powders to use as medicine for a variety of ailments, from skin rashes to insomnia to impotence.  They ingested the power of these creatures.

Then it was learned that the bones in Dragon Bone Hill hadn’t come from dragons at all. 

It happened in the 1920s, when a group of international prehistorians realized that the hill was actually a limestone cave, indeed a whole system of caves, whose roofs had eroded and whose hollows had been filled with layer after layer of sediment.  When two human-like teeth were found there, the Canadian anatomist Davidson Black gave their owner a name, Sinanthropus.  A newspaper came up with “Peking Man.” 

By the time a third tooth and two fragments of jawbone were found, Teilhard had become a close colleague of those prehistorians and would soon be named Scientific Adviser to the Chinese Geological Survey, which had been founded in 1916 by Chinese scientists returning from study in Europe.  His assignment: to study with two Chinese the geology of the site and supervise the organization of further excavations.

On a cold and snowy December 2, 1929, a young Chinese scientist by the name of Pei Wenzhong was closing out the year’s excavations.  Working with a crew of four—hammers in one hand, candles in the other–he came across a skull embedded in hard clay.  He extracted it, wrapped it in soiled laundry to hide it from bandits, and took it back to Beijing.

There Teilhard and  Davidson Black were waiting.

Black spent many nights cleaning the fossil while, in another building, Teilhard studied the materials found with it, the better to date it.  Several weeks later, the two sent a telegram to Marcellin Boule, director of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.  

28 DEC 1929

The letter completed the picture. 

Date Uncertain
To Marcellin Boule,
At Choukoutien the largest part of the cerebral cranium of a Sinanthropus has just been unearthed, undamaged . . . The jaws are missing.  Still, in its present condition, the find is most exciting.  The braincase is similar in proportions to that of Pithecanthropus, but with frontal and parietal protuberances distinct (somewhat as on the skullcap of Neanderthals).  Supraorbital ridges and postorbital constriction are more strongly marked than in the Neanderthals.

Pithecanthropus, or “Java Man,” was the name given to hominid remains found in Indonesia by Eugène Dubois in 1891.  But those remains were far less complete and less well preserved than those of Sinanthropus.  To many, Peking Man was the indisputable “missing link,” roughly half a million years old, between apes and humans.  It had been found almost seventy years to the day after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

News of the discovery created headlines around the world.

Sketch of Peking Man published in the British newspaper The Sphere (Amédée Forestier, Wikimedia Commons)

As the one who brought the discovery to speakers of French, Teilhard was often credited with actually finding the fossil.  “He was at pains to disclaim this distinction,” wrote George Barbour, a colleague in geology.

Ironies in the story abound.  A hill turns out to be a network of caves; dragon bones, animal and human fossils.  And a man—Teilhard–exiled for a belief in evolution is led to the very place where proof of evolution lies waiting.  The discovery of Peking Man, he wrote to a friend, is “a solid fact that’s going to be highly embarrassing to many out-of-date minds.”

To Teilhard, however, the find had a deeper meaning.  “Such coincidences ‘madly’ increase my faith in the presence of God in our lives,” he wrote.  “If I was offered whatever chair in Paris tomorrow, I wonder whether I’d dare accept it as long as I hadn’t felt the end of the seam which is still growing richer here for me every day.”

In 1987 Dragon Bone Hill became a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a museum and ongoing research program.  And Pei Wenzhong became a cultural icon.  The fact that a Chinese scientist, and not a foreigner, actually unearthed Sinanthropus was a declaration of independence for Chinese paleontology.

The local Chinese no longer dig for health and vitality at Dragon Bone Hill, the government having banned the practice.  Any dragon bones still there will lie in peace.

Adapted from John Kotre, The Earth He Loved: Its Place in the Life of Teilhard de Chardin (2024).

© 2024 John Kotre Do not use / reprint without permission.

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