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Mammals The Frightening Fossils

Halloween Special: Ice Age King Kong

Since 1935, primate teeth scattered around Asia have hinted at the presence of something massive. But what do we really know about this giant? And is it the culprit behind some of our superstitious beliefs?

Spooky season is upon us! To celebrate the most delightfully horrifying time of the year, Halloween themed articles will be released every Sunday on Max’s Blogosaurus for the rest of October. Will you be able to endure the Frightening Fossils?

Did King Kong have a prehistoric equivalent?

Or were they more similar to bigfoot?

The year is 1935. Dutch paleontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald was scoping out Chinese drug stores for potential fossils when he came across something fascinating. Marketed as “Dragon teeth” and sold for their healing properties, Koenigswald discovered the molars of an ancient species of primate. These teeth were far from ordinary, as their size dwarfed that of any living or extinct primate. He named the teeth Gigantopithecus blacki, a fitting name for an animal that would become one of prehistories greatest enigmas.

A Mysterious Giant

Since 1935, thousands of Gigantopithecus teeth have been discovered across southeast Asia, particularly in Chinese caves[i]. Unfortunately for paleontologists, these teeth – alongside a few damaged jawbones – comprise the only known fossil material of Gigantopithecus. The absence of fossil material has made the appearance of Gigantopithecus unclear to paleontologists. Did it walk upright? Or did it walk on its knuckles like a Gorilla? Did it resemble the Orangutans that presently call southeast Asia home? While most depictions of Gigantopithecus take the Orangutan route, it is entirely possible that Gigantopithecus could have had a unique appearance not shared by any primate ancestors.

Gigantopithecus (left) alongside a Gorilla (centre) and Human (right)

Gigantopithecus’ size is also an enigma. The large jawbones clearly indicate that it was bigger than a Gorilla, making it the largest primate of all time. Despite this, the extent of Gigantopithecus’ size is unknown as there is no way to accurately scale up the jaw to the rest of the skull, let alone the entire body. This hasn’t stopped paleontologists from estimating, however. Lower estimates still deem Gigantopithecus to be the largest ape ever, at just a little over two meters tall[ii]. Other estimates put Gigantopithecus at a whopping four meters tall[iii], though this figure is highly unlikely. Until more material is discovered, the true size and appearance of Gigantopithecus will remain shrouded in mystery. Almost like another famous ape…

Tales of the Teeth!

What do we know about Gigantopithecus? Teeth! Unsurprisingly, the enamel and structure of Gigantopithecus’ teeth and jaws can be used to infer their diet. Their short jaws, combined with heavily worn teeth, points toward a diet of tough plant material, namely bamboo, which would been common in their habitats[iv]. The foraging of tough vegetation is a similar dietary behaviour to Gorillas, as opposed to fruit-eating Orangutans[v]. Despite this, studies undertaken on the proteins of Gigantopithecus teeth have shown that it was distantly related to Orangutans[vi]. An extreme simplification is that Gigantopithecus was an Orangutan that behaved like a Gorilla, and as a result, became gigantic.

A Rival of Humanity?

Gigantopithecus lived during the Pleistocene epoch, from about two million years ago to 300,000 years ago[vii]. Sometime during this period, early ancestors of mankind known as Homo erectus ventured to southeast Asia. These early relatives likely lived alongside Gigantopithecus, with some fossil sites potentially containing fossils of both species[viii]. No interaction between the species has been documented, meaning it was highly unlikely that human ancestors hunted Gigantopithecus. Instead, they likely coexisted within the forests of Pleistocene Asia, each carving out their own unique niches that allowed both species to thrive.

Mark Witton on Twitter: "For #FossilFriday, here's my 2017 #paleoart of the  largest known ape, Gigantopithecus blacki, as featured in the  Palaeoartist's Handbook and my upcoming book, Life Through the Ages II.

Oh, Yeti Yeti!

Let’s review the facts. Gigantopithecus was a mysterious, giant primate that went extinct and lived in dense forested regions. Sound familiar? If so, you aren’t the only one to connect Gigantopithecus with Bigfoot, or the Yeti, or whatever you want to call the giant monkey that runs around forests and has never been conclusively depicted on camera. Sadly, this theory doesn’t hold up for two reasons. First, Gigantopithecus is extinct. Around 300,000 years ago, climate change brought on by the rise of the Tibetan plateau brought a great reduction to the forests Gigantopithecus called home, causing its extinction[ix]. Second, Bigfoot is supposedly a speedster, always sprinting away before it can be filmed or interacted with. Gigantopithecus was a slow, robust animal that could hardly muster a jog, let alone sprint.

Even some Bigfoot conspiracists have pointed this out and questioned those who made the connection[x]. When your fellow theorists are calling you out, you should know you’re in the wrong. But hey, conspiracists gonna conspire!

Was King Kong based on Gigantopithecus? The answer is no, as the first King Kong film predates the discovery of Gigantopithecus by two years. Having said this, in Disney’s 2016 live-action remake of the Jungle Book, King Louie – a giant Orangutan encountered by the film’s protagonist Mowgli – was based on Gigantopithecus. While the portrayal is far from accurate, you could at least say it got the…bare necessities of Gigantopithecus down.

Happy Halloween!

References

I take no credit for any images found within this article.

Header image courtesy of Anthony Hutchings, found here

Gigantopithecus and a tiger courtesy of Julio Lacerda, found here

Homo erectus and Gigantopithecus courtesy of Mark Witton, found here

Horrifying Gigantopithecus courtesy of Joschua Knüppe, found here

Gigantopithecus skull alongside Gorilla and Human found here


[i] “Gigantopithecus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/animal/Gigantopithecus

[ii] Witton, Mark P., and Charles Robert Knight. Life through the Ages II: Twenty-First Century Visions of Prehistory. Indiana University Press, 2020.

[iii] Ibid  

[iv] Ibid

[v]  Ibid  

[vi] Welker, F., Ramos-Madrigal, J., Kuhlwilm, M. et al. “Enamel proteome shows that Gigantopithecus was an early diverging pongine.” Nature 576,262–265 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1728-8

[vii] “Gigantopithecus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/animal/Gigantopithecus.

[viii] Shao, Qingfeng, et al. “U-Series and ESR/U-Series Dating of the Stegodon–Ailuropoda Fauna at Black Cave, Guangxi, Southern China with Implications for the Timing of the Extinction of Gigantopithecus Blacki.” Quaternary International, vol. 434, 2017, pp. 65–74., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.12.016.

[ix] Wayman, Erin. “Did Bigfoot Really Exist? How Gigantopithecus Became Extinct.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Jan. 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/did-bigfoot-really-exist-how-gigantopithecus-became-extinct-16649201/.

[x] Ibid.

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