Gigantopithecus: The “giant fossil ape”

Gigantopithecus in ancient Greek means giant ape which is as accurate as it is straightforward. This now extinct ape species roamed the lands of Southern China as well as other Asian countries such as Vietnam and India at the same time as several species of Hominin, or humans.

What was it?

According to fossil records and some scientists, Gigantopithecus was the largest known primate to ever set foot on Earth with some estimated to have stood at just under ten feet tall, weighing over 500 kilograms. The method of locomotion of these colossal beasts, with an arm span of around twelve feet, is not known for definite with no leg or pelvic bones having been discovered as of August 2018. The dominant view is that Gigantopithecus walked on all fours like gorillas however some researchers believe in bipedal movement.

Grover Krantz, an American anthropologist, published dozens of articles and tens of books about the evolution of humans and, unrelatedly, believed in the existence of big foot. Krantz was pushed to the side lines because of this view and government grants became harder to come by. Kratz championed the Gigantopithecus bipedal theory, his evidence being the few jawbones that had been discovered. The jaw bones widened towards the rear giving ample space for a windpipe to be utilised suggesting that the skull could have sat on a straightened spine and the beast stood using two legs. Main stream science believes that the Gigantopithecus’ supreme weight would have put too much stress on it’s limbs if moving bipedally. Perhaps Krantz just wanted to find further evidence to prove his big foot hypotheses or perhaps he had found the truth.

Despite the staggering statistics surrounding the size of Gigantopithecus not much is actually known about the species appearance or characteristics due to a largely limited fossil base. It has been suggested they resemble the modern day gorilla or the modern orangutan. Based on such speculation it is hard to know where it stands in the food chain with some scientists suggesting it was at no or very little risk of predation when fully matured and developed however a young or exposed Gigantopithecus may have been at risk from the likes of large cat species, constrictor snakes, crocodiles or Homo Erectus.

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A size comparison between the modern human and Gigantopithecus by artist Rhys Dylan

Discovery

To fully understand the story of potentially the worlds largest ever primate one must go back to the very beginning. Gustav Heinrich Ralph Von Koenigswald, referred to henceforth as Koenigswald, was a talented and passionate geologist, significant in hominin research in the 20th century. His desire to learn and to educate saw him start his fossil collection aged fifteen before joining the geological survey of Java, Indonesia, as a palaeontologist around the age of twenty-eight. However it was in 1935, at the age of 33, that Koenigswald’s world intertwined with the Gigantopithecus story.

After five years spent studying the lands of Java and it’s fossilised remains, Koenigswald diverted his attention to aiding research on Orangutans and their potential ancestral line. Koenigswald quickly realised that his search could be helped by Chinese apothecary shops, he writes: “I began to hunt for fossils in the Chinese drug stores in Java. I discovered that I had made a grave mistake in simply enquiring about ‘teeth’. I should have asked for ‘dragon teeth’, since that was the name of the ‘drug’ I sought. When I finally learned the correct name and obtained a prescription, I succeeded in finding these teeth in every Chinese drug store in every Chinese community.”

A quick caveat stating that ‘dragon teeth’ or ‘dragon’s bones‘ were fossilised bones or teeth that were ground up and digested in order to cure certain illnesses and conditions according to Chinese tales. Johan Gunnar Andersson explains in his 1934 book Children of the Yellow Earth: Studies in Prehistoric China just what the benefits of said medicines were; listing it as helping such ailments as dysentery, gall-stones, fevers, convulsions, internal swellings, paralysis, “women’s diseases”, malaria, spasms, epilepsy, “madness”, headaches, melancholy, and “attacks by demons.”

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Koenigswald examining a skull discovered in Java. Photo from the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam.

Back to the story and Koenigswald had now realised that some of the teeth found were so large they must have belonged to a species not identified as of yet. He ploughed on with his research and analysed thousands of teeth, only finding a handful belonging to the now named Gigantopithecus. Koeningswald, despite the immense rarity of his discoveries, noticed that the teeth he had found were often displayed in shops alongside the fossilised remains of giant pandas and bears, all species dating back to the Pleistocene period a million years ago.

War delays

Koenigswald’s research was majorly unsettled by World War Two. The army of Japan marched into Java in the early 1940s with Koenigswald burying his Gigantopithecus teeth in a milk bottle before being arrested and placed into a prisoner of war camp. With the war ending in 1945 Koenigswald was free to promote his ideas and findings. A decade after his imprisonment and his data collection was flying. Chinese scientific authorities had launched expeditions to find fossils of Gigantopithecus and were led to Southern China and to farmers who had mined dragon teeth for years in order to sell on to the medicinal sector. The expedition ended up collecting around 1000 Gigantopithecus teeth from caves such as the Liucheng located in sheer cliff faces. As well as the bewildering amount of teeth found, three jawbones were also vitally recovered.

It is again in Asia in the midst of another war, fifty-one years after the initial Gigantopithecus discovery, that more fossilised remains were found. In a 1986 article written by Malcom W. Browne and published in the New York Times it is written that “a remarkable assemblage of fossils discovered by Vietnamese scientists, has prompted American anthropologists to mount an expedition of their own to the site in Langson province of northern Vietnam.” The two American anthropologists granted access to the site located northeast of Hanoi were Dr John W. Olsen and Dr Russell L. Ciochon, and were urged to excavate further by Dr. Pavel Boriskovksy, a Soviet scientist, who saw his own expeditions cut short by American bombing runs.

After three years of negotiations, at the height of the Vietnam war, the pair were allowed to visit the site said to contain Homo Erectus remains and stone weapons mixed in with Gigantopithecus remains. The find was said to be accidental with the article stating “the ancient bones seem to have been turned up in the course of digging bat excrement out of limestone caves for use as fertilizer.” Said caves were described in the text as “a range of sugarloaf-shaped limestone mountains shot through with ancient sinkholes, caverns and underground streams.” The site location is described exactly the same as Koenigswald described his cave locations in China half a century beforehand. The article finishes with a line or two about how the same geological formation extends into the neighbouring Chinese province of Kwangsi.

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Langson province, Vietnam. Photo taken by Hoang Giang Hai, 2012.

Extinction

The combination of both suspected Homo Erectus remains and those of Gigantopithecus together led many to believing that hominid species were the reason for the giant beasts eventual extinction. Scientific evidence such as fossilised remains and cultural studies suggest that Homo Erectus and Gigantopithecus resided alongside each other in Asia for countless years. Homo Erectus is then suspected of overhunting the apes or competing with them for resources but the Gigantopithecus were forest dwelling herbivores and Homo Erectus a nomad carnivorous species so this seems unlikely. Russell Ciochon, from an article published in 2016, states that “I think today most people agree humans and Gigantopithecus were not living side by side. they were certainly both present in China one million years ago, but I don’t think they were inhabiting the same areas.” Ciochon, who of course took part in the Vietnam expeditions of the 80s, did once believe that Homo Erectus and Gigantopithecus shared a “long co-existence” but has since turned his back on that idea and that pool of evidence saying instead that the suspected Homo Erectus remains on that site in fact belonged to another ape species. the tools reportedly found remain unexplained.

A further theory, backed up by masses of evidence, encourages the idea that Homo Erectus was not involved in the extinction of Gigantopithecus but instead it’s downfall was caused by a potent mixture of climate change and an inability to adapt due to its monstrous size. In a paper titled Flexibility of diet and habitat in Pleistocene South Asian mammals: Implications for the fate of the giant fossil ape Gigantopithecus published in the Quarternary International scientific journal by Dr Herve Bocherens of the Seckenberg centre for human evolution and palaeoenvironment at the university of Tubingers and his colleagues Dr Friedemann Schrenk and Dr Ottmar Kullmer it is disclosed in depth.

The abstract of said paper reads: “Determining the diet of fossil apes is essential to understand primate evolution.  It is known only from isolated teeth and a few lower jaws with reduced front teeth and enlarged molars and premolars. A large spectrum of diets has been suggested for Gigantopithecus, ranging from carnivorous or grass-feeding in open savannah to a vegetarian diet dominated by fruits or bamboo. To determine its habitat and to understand why it became extinct, we tried to evaluate its dietary niche. The carbon stable isotopic composition of tooth enamel of this taxon compared to coeval and extant mammals from Southeastern Asia show that Gigantopithecus was a forest-dweller with a generalist vegetarian diet and was not specialized on bamboos. In southern China, Gigantopithecus lived in a forested environment, as did the coeval fauna, while in Thailand, it occupied only the forested part of a mosaic landscape including significant parts of open savannah. The carbon isotopic compositions of Gigantopithecus were different from those of omnivorous and carnivorous taxa, but very similar to those of orang-utans and unlike those of the bamboo-specialist giant panda. Therefore, even when open savannah environments were present in the landscape, Gigantopithecus foraging was limited to forested habitats. The very large size of Gigantopithecus, combined with a relatively restricted dietary niche, may explain its demise during the drastic forest reduction that characterized the glacial periods in South East Asia.”

The experiment, if not already deduced, involved the studying and scanning of carbon isotopes in the tooth enamel of fossilised ‘dragon teeth’ identified as belonging to Gigantopithecus. One of the teeth analysed was the first on record, discovered by Koenigswald. Bocherens expanded on his studies saying that the “results also contribute to a better understanding of the reasons that led to the giant ape’s extinction.” In the abstract Gigantopithecus is related to the Orangutan which still remains as a species to this day. This is due to the fact that Orangutans have a slow metabolism and can live on a limited food supply, Gigantopithecus was far too big (7-8 x the weight of a modern Orangutan) to depend on such a small amount of food and the demand began to far outweigh the supply.

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Dr Friedemann Schrenk pictured with a Gigantopithecus molar. Photo credit to the Seckenberg centre.

Lack of fossil samples

Across the years, since Koenigswald and the initial discovery of Gigantopithecus, there have been many theories as to why the fossil base and data collected is so limited. The aforementioned Dr Olsen suggests Hyenas as a reason for the significantly sparse amount of Gigantopithecus remains: “We know that hyenas were contemporaries of Gigantopithecus in mid-Pleistocene China and we know how modern Hyenas in East Africa feed. When they devour the carcass of a large animal, they eat everything except the teeth and jaw bones, which are too difficult to chew up.” Another, similar, theory was provided by his colleague Dr Ciochon, now a lecturer at the university of Iowa, who proposed the idea that the caves in which Gigantopithecus teeth have been found were not caves in the Pleistocene period but were instead small sinkholes on the ground. Ciochon expands his idea saying that the ground level sinkholes would have been home to species such as porcupines who are known to chew on bones in order to sharpen their teeth and to provide themselves with a source of calcium.

However Gigantopithecus lived, wherever they roamed, in whatever way they perished, it is a journey filled with intrigue. Some Chinese researchers to this day believe that some form of Gigantopithecus may have survived as the so-called Yeti or big foot. Dr Olsen puts down this notion but has suggested that “if some giant primate approximating the legendary yeti actually did exist, the one part of the world where it might have evaded capture or detailed observation would be the remote mountain ranges of Western China and Central Asia.” Perhaps Grover Krantz was right all along.

Further information and links

This research paper explores the relationship between Homo tsaichangensis and Gigantopithecus and is written in supreme detail by Mark McMenamin, a professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College. Also this video from PBS Eons outlines the Gigantopithecus story in seven minutes, easy to digest and learn from.

Twitter: @themindlist   Email: themindlist@outlook.com

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