for National Geographic News
Stalking through the forest, an early human hunter might have glimpsed an oversize ape through a thicket of bamboo.
We may never know the outcome of such a prehistoric encounteror even if a meeting occurred. The mysterious ape, called Gigantopithecus blacki, has long since vanished from the Earth, and so has the early human species.
But researchers have determined that the giant apewhich might have been the closest thing to a real King Kongdid in fact live at the same time and in roughly the same place as early humans.
In China 300,000 years ago the two species might well have crossed paths, according to W. Jack Rink of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
A German paleontologist discovered Gigantopithecus in 1935 when he picked up a strange, heavy tooth in a Chinese apothecary. It was labeled as a "dragon tooth."
Since then researchers have found additional remains of the ape, which they've used to make guesses about its size, diet, and when and how it lived. But experts are still left with many unanswered questions.
"We're sort of dealing with the mystery ape," said Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"We know so little about Gigantopithecus, largely because its [remains consist of only] three mandibles [jaw bones] and hundreds of teeth," he said.
Gigantopithecus fossils that are 7 or 8 million years old have been found in modern-day India and Pakistan. Remains less than 2 million years old, meanwhile, have turned up in China and Southeast Asia.
Given the limited fossil record, scientists debate how the ape evolved, when it died out, and precisely how big it was.
"There's this mythology that arose, largely because of the name, that it's got to be huge," Potts said. "Some people say, Oh, geez, it must have stood seven feet [two meters] tall."
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