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Giant Asian Ape and Humans Coexisted, Might Have Interacted

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
December 8, 2005
 
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 encounter—or 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 ape—which might have been the closest thing to a real King Kong—did 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.

Big Mystery

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."

University of Iowa paleoanthropologist Russell L. Ciochon thinks it was even larger.

"We've estimated around nine feet [three meters] tall [when] standing on its hind legs," said the scientist, who calculated its likely dimensions from a jaw bone.

The beast weighed nearly half a ton (500 kilograms), making it more than twice the size of the largest modern ape, Ciochon estimates.

"Clearly it was dramatically bigger than a gorilla," he said. But, like a gorilla, it presumably walked on all fours.

Researchers have wondered whether Gigantopithecus shared a 10-million-year-old ancestor with Asia's only modern great ape, the orangutan.

The extinct giant ape's teeth share many structural traits with those of the purported ancestor, Sivapithecus, indicating that the two species are closely related.

But recent x-rays allowed Ciochon and his colleagues in Germany to peer inside the Gigantopithecus teeth. The scientists concluded that orangutans' teeth aren't similar to the other species, suggesting that the modern primates evolved from a different branch of the ape family, Ciochon says.

Long in the Tooth

Through past studies of Gigantopithecus teeth, Ciochon has determined that the ape subsisted on bamboo and fruits encased in tough coatings.

The Smithsonian's Potts argues that a diet of tough, fibrous vegetation might account for the creature's massive jaws and teeth—whether the rest of the animal's body was unusually large has yet to be determined.

"All we know is that they had really whopping jaws and teeth," he said. "There are no limb bones or other bones of the body."

But teeth give Rink, the McMaster University researcher, plenty to work with.

Rink specializes in dating mineral deposits, and he recently focused on Gigantopithecus teeth from a cave in China's Guangxi region. Those mineral nuggets may represent the most recent evidence of the ape.

Using a technique that calculates a fossil's age based on the electron spin, or magnetism, in minerals, Rink recently put an age of about 300,000 years on some of the remains.

While modern people weren't on the scene at that time, early humans called Homo erectus were living in the region.

"[Early] humans were living down in the river valleys," Rink said. "Gigantopithecus was living in the tropical forest at higher elevations. It's likely that Gigantopithecus and humans saw each other in the landscape."

Other experts are more cautious about that conclusion.

"They weren't living side by side," the University of Iowa's Ciochon noted. Tropical forest "is not the primary habitat for humans."

Potts of the Smithsonian said, "Whether they actually frequently saw each other is still unclear."

Nevertheless, Ciochon says, Rink's new results reflect the youngest date yet assigned to Gigantopithecus and may be from close to the time when the species died out.

Even if encounters between species did occur, it was probably environmental change—not hungry humans—that wiped out the giant apes, Ciochon says.

"I think they were pretty much immune to predators," he said, "because they were just too big."

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