For 60 years the Peking Man fossils have remained missing.
The Chinese government has offered a reward, researchers have tried to work out what happened and hoaxers pushed their luck.
But now an old US marine’s tale has provided a possible X on the map to where the Peking fossils might lie.
Richard Bowen was a corporal in the US Marines and in the spring of 1947 he was stationed in an old barracks in the northern Chinese port of Qinhuangdao. He and a band of about 100 marines were surrounded by a Chinese army that numbered about a quarter of a million men.
They were there to evacuate surrendered Japanese soldiers but it all got hairy when the Chinese told them they had to surrender.
“If they attacked you were a goner, you talk of Custer, his odds were greater than ours,” Richard Bowen told me yesterday.
During the night he and the other marines would dig defensive positions. One night, with the Chinese not far away from the perimeter, Richard was instructed to dig a foxhole so as to set up the 30 calibre machine gun. His spade hadn’t cut that deep into the sand when he hit something. He pulled out a wooden box and inside he found bones. Strange, but this being China where everything goes, Richard closed it up and reburied it.
Perhaps, he thought, the fisherman had left it. Days later the marines were evacuated.
Six decades later Professor Lee Berger of Wits University heard of Richard’s story from an email his son sent.
The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of Homo erectus fossils ever found.
They were escavated in Zhoukoudian China in the 1930s. If they were still around they would provide invaluable information on one of our closest ancestors.
But in 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbour the decision was made to take the specimens out of China for safekeeping in the US. The Japanese were advancing on Peking.
The bones were carefully packed in crates, some believe marine footlockers, and disappeared somewhere between Peking and Qinhuangdao.
With a map sketched by Bowen, Google Earth photographs and the story, Berger headed to China. With other scientists he has found what he believes is the X, in a car park in now a far more developed Qinhuangdao.
Underneath the concrete could lie the wood box. In two years time developers plan to tear the car park up and build skyscrapers. Only then will academics have the chance to find out if this where science’s most enduring secret lies.