DECEMBER 1941. Japan has just entered the second world war. China, already fighting its neighbour, is in the firing line. At the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, Hu Chengzhi carefully packs two wooden crates with the world’s most precious anthropological artefacts. Peking Man – in reality some 200 fossilised teeth and bones, including six skulls – is to be shipped to the US for safekeeping. This is the last anyone ever sees of him.
At the time, the Peking Man remains were the oldest known fossils belonging to human ancestors. Their discovery in the 1920s and 30s caused a sensation, triggering declarations that the cradle of humanity had been found. But just a few decades later, all eyes had turned to Africa. A slew of discoveries there left little doubt that it was our true ancestral home. As far as human evolution was concerned, Asia was out of the picture.
Not any more. The last decade has seen the discovery of new Asian fossils, among others by Chinese palaeoanthropologists with a renewed interest in their heritage. As key moments in our past are rewritten, the spotlight is once more turning east.