If there is one creature that is frequently recycled in pop culture it is the giant ape. They recur over the decades because writers and directors can make them human enough that people can relate, but also fearsome enough to differentiate itself and be a scary threat. The most notorious example of this is King Kong, who first starred in a film in 1933 and has been reinvented on screen a staggering 3 times. He is one of the most famous large movie monsters of all time, tying only with Godzilla (whom Kong will battle on the silver screen in 2020). As well as seeing them in movies some people are convinced that large “ape-men” still exist in the wild. Sightings of animals such as Bigfoot and the Yeti, as well as “evidence” of hair and skin samples, have been reported for centuries. However the fossil record tells us that there were once indeed giant apes roaming the earth, as recently as 100,000 years ago!
The first fossils of this mysterious animal were discovered not during an excavation or stored in a museum, but in a market in Hong Kong. In 1935 A German palaeontologist named Ralph von Koenigswald was wandering through a Chinese market looking for weird curiosities such as “dragon bones”. Suddenly his eye was drawn to a molar tooth in one of the pharmacies. Von Koenigswald deduced that this tooth belonged to a species of primate, however this tooth was much bigger than any tooth belonging to a modern primate! Tracing the source of the tooth to a cave in Guangxi, South China, Von Koenigswald found more teeth and a jaw fragment. He named this giant ape Gigantopithecus blacki, (Greek for “Black’s giant ape”) after a colleague of his called Davidson Black. Since then surprisingly few further remains of Gigantopithecus have been found, with only a few more teeth and fragments of lower jaw collected from China, Vietnam and India. This could be due to the poor preservation potential of the areas that this animal lived in. This problem affects other prehistoric animals, and explains why we know some animals from very fragmented remains only. They have to be reconstructed based on what little we can infer from the remains, information from close relatives and more than a fair bit of educated guesswork!
However, despite the mysteriousness surrounding this animal, palaeontologists have been able to estimate that Gigantopithecus blacki stood 3 metres tall and weighed around half a ton; meaning that it would easily tower over a person and would have been the largest and most physically powerful primate that has ever lived. This size varied between genders, with males being much larger than females (this is known as “sexual dimorphism”). Like Orangutans Gigantopithecus is thought to have sported a long red/ginger coloured coat of hair, which together with its size would have made it a distinguishable sight in the tropical forests of South East Asia. At first glance this description may sound eerily similar to the popular depiction of “The Abominable Snowman”. However before anybody gets any ideas, Gigantopithecus would not explain the myth of the Yeti! For one thing it probably was not a bipedal walker, instead walking on its knuckles like a gorilla. Also its geographical range didn’t stretch to the Himalayas, where most yeti sightings have traditionally been located. That being said, it is plausible that fossil remains of Gigantopithecus collected over the centuries by locals may have been mistaken for remains of a Yeti. Despite its large size and ferocious canines, it is thought that Gigantopithecus would have had a diet consisting of fruit, leaves, roots and even bamboo, using its large molars to crunch through the plant matter. Its size would have given it protection against the main predators that inhabited the forests it lived in, such as tigers and alligators. The similarities to Orangutans isn’t just superficial however. A study published in November 2019 (by Welker et. al.) has shown that modern Orangutans and Gigantopithecus share a close common ancestor. By extracting and studying small fragments of protein from fossils of Gigantopithecus teeth the researchers showed that the two species split from a common ancestor around 10-12 million years ago. This was at a time when the great apes were undergoing an increase in diversity, evolving into the precursors of species alive today (including the early ape-like ancestors of humans).
Gigantopithecus evolved around 6 million years ago and was a highly successful species in its time. However despite its longevity it would eventually succumb to extinction, the last Gigantopithecus dying out 100,000 years ago. One reason for its extinction is thought to have been the loss of its tropical forest habitat due to global cooling. With the reduction of forest went the loss of it’s mainly fruit diet. As a result Gigantopithecus could not find enough food to support its huge size. However before it disappeared Gigantopithecus did manage to come into contact with our early human ancestors, in particular the early hominid Homo erectus, who had just spread into Asia at the time. Whether these early human ancestors would have hunted Gigantopithecus is a matter of debate, however a 3 metre tall bad tempered great ape would have certainly posed a massive threat to any human ancestor brave enough to take it on!
So Gigantopithecus managed to inspire awe in our early human ancestors, as giant apes do in ourselves today. To finish I’ll leave you with one more fun fact about this ape. The character of King Louie in the 2016 live action film “The Jungle Book” is a self-confessed Gigantopithecus!
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
Bocherens, H., et al. (2017). “Flexibility of diet and habitat in Pleistocene South Asian mammals: Implications for the fate of the giant fossil ape Gigantopithecus.” Quaternary International 434: 148-155.
Zhang, Y., Harrison, T., Gigantopithecus blacki: a giant ape from the Pleistocene of Asia revisited. American journal of physical anthropology, 162 Suppl 63, 153-177 (2017). doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23150.