Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Review: The Jesuit and the Skull

The Jesuit and the Skull, by Amir D. Aczel chronicles the life of a remarkably progressive Jesuit priest named Teilhard de Chardin who was instrumental in the discovery and excavation of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian Cave in China.  During the two decades leading up to World War II, the remains of Peking Man (now recognized to be a population of homo erectus) were excavated and studied by an international team of scholars.  This team included Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who amongst many other contributions, was directly responsible for interpreting the evidence for homo erectus' use of fire at the site - the earliest in the world. 

The first skullcap found at Zhoukoudian
Today, only casts exist of these important fossils.  The original fossils and the stone tools with them were loaded into two large wooden crates as World War II approached China's shores in 1941, so that they could be shipped to safety in the United States.  The fossils were an important national symbol for China and their capture was a military goal for Japan to demoralize the Chinese people.  If Japan captured the crates they've never publicly acknowledged it.  All that is known is that the crates were handed over to US Marines to smuggle out of the country, but that the ship that they were intending to use sank before it could make it to harbour and be loaded.  To this day, no one knows what became of the Peking Man fossils, and the only direct opportunity to study the fossils are casts made of the originals.

Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Woven throughout this story, from the discovery of the first skull cap at Zhoukoudian to their eventual dissapearance and beyond, The Jesuit and the Skull tracks the life of Teilhard de Chardin, a priest whose order could not come to terms with his second life as an influential scientist fascinated by the evolution of the human species.  Teilhard would have loved nothing more than to live and publish in Paris, and although he never wavered in either his Christian faith or his acceptance of evolution, all of his attempts to publish his ideas that synthesized the two points of view were constantly blocked by his Jesuit Order.  Teilhard could not bear the idea of giving up his vows as a priest and he was too popular for the Jesuits to defrock without negative feedback, so what ensued was decades of forced exile.  Teilhard spent his time in exile studying early hominid sites around the world, which only added fuel to his ideas, so that whenever he would try to come back to France his presence was in even greater demand amongst scientific circles and more troublesome for the church.

Teilhard couldn't sit still.  As a young man, he enlisted in WWI where he served as a medic and was decorated for his selfless bravery.  Teilhard's easy charm made him some colourful friends, like Nirgidma of Torhut, a Mongolian princess who helped him pass the time while his team waited for a ransom of Citreon cars and radio equipment during an unscheduled kidknapping in the middle of an 8000-mile trek between the Mediterranean and China Sea.  He helped his friend Henry de Monfried, the Pirate of the Red Sea, out of some legal problems at the Chinese Turkestan border while Monfried was on his way to pick up a shipment of hashish.

Lucille Swan
There's a love story too, although its a frustrated and one-sided one, with the free-spirited ceramic artist, Lucille Swan.   Swan is a fascinating character in her own right, who was dedicated to Teilhard for years, but never able to break through his vow of chastity.  Her talents as an artist and her connection to Teilhard and Zhoukoudian made her the perfect candidate to reconstruct the face of Peking Man from the skulls.  During the 1930s she worked from the casts and with the scientists to create several sculptures of Peking Man.

Amir D. Aczel's account of Teilhard's life is told simply and matter-of-factly.  He walks the reader through Teilhard's biography via excerpts from his published works as well as unpublished letters.  To provide the context for the discoveries, Aczel does a wonderful job of recreating the world in which Teilhard lived during the first half of the 20th century.  He explains how the Scopes Monkey trial in America affected Teilhard's life in Europe and discusses the important discoveries in hominid evolution that preceded the finds at Zhoukoudian.  The book was published in 2007, so Aczel is able to look back on the story of Peking Man with everything that we have learned about hominid evolution since Teilhard's time to show how it all fits into the bigger picture.  I've never read anything else by Aczel, but I will after reading this book.  Judging from their titles, most of his other books examine the lives of scientists who pushed the boundaries of their time.  In the meantime, I think I'll try and find out more about Lucille Swan - her life and work seem quite exceptional.

Photo Credits:
1,5: Book Covers from
2: Skullcap from The Peking Man World Heritage Site at Zhoukoudian
3: Image of Teilhard from The Teilhard Page
4: Lucille Swan from The Life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


  1. Sounds like an interesting book Tim. I enjoy reading these background type of book that explain the main characters and players insignificant events.
    I read the biographies of Louis Leaky and Mary years ago in school. Hers was the more interesting of the two.

  2. I do think you'd enjoy this one, Steve. Teilhard is a pretty intersting guy and there's lots of quirky little details in the book that would help punch up a lecture on homo erectus. I picked it up very cheap at Chapters in town. You can borrow my copy anytime.


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