The scientific tourist #52 — Gigantopithecus Blacki, a cautionary tale of semi-informed scientific speculation

This week’s image comes from San Diego’s Museum of Man — it’s a reconstruction of an ancient ape dubbed Gigantopithecus Blacki:

Gigantopithecus blacki

Gigantopithecus has an interesting history in the scientific world. It was first described by the German paleontologist Ralph von Koenigswald based on a single tooth found at a Chinese apothecary’s shop in 1935. Many more fossilized bits and pieces of this creature have since been found — but still, the sum total of Gigantopithecus remains consists of three jaw bones (a.k.a. mandibles), and hundreds of teeth.

As such things go, these are slim pickings. Still, it’s been enough for people to propose detailed hypotheses on Gigantopithecus‘ place in the ape family tree, as well as on its diet, behavior, and general size and description (as is the case for the Museum of Man’s reconstruction). The fact that these are all based on thin evidence doesn’t seem to bother a number of people, some of whom even go on to postulate that encounters with early humans led to the extinction of Gigantopithecus — unless, of course, some remnant populations remain to be the source of Sasquatch / Big Foot / Yeti stories.

So in short, here is what is actually known about this mysterious creature:

  • It was an ape
  • It had huge jaws and teeth, considerably bigger than even those of a modern-day gorilla
  • Based on fossil traces on the teeth, its diet consisted of vegetation — primarily bamboo, as well as some tough-skinned fruit
  • X-rays of Gigantopithecus teeth reveal structures unlike those in modern apes
  • Fossils have been dated to ages ranging from about 8 million years ago until at least 300,000 years ago
  • All fossils found to date trace to deep forests in Asia

Beyond that, we’re largely left with educated guesses.

Based on the size of Gigantopithecus‘ teeth and jaws, either it was much bigger than a gorilla, or else it had over-sized dentition to deal with its tough diet. Maybe it was bipedal, but more likely it was quadrupedal (like the rest of the apes) with the ability to stand up on occasion. Meanwhile, the tooth structure seen in X-rays means that it was probably not a member of the same branch of the ape family that led to modern apes. The dates attributed to Gigantopithecus fossils suggest some overlap in time with Homo Erectus; maybe the two species interacted, maybe not. Since Gigantopithecus‘ diet was bamboo-based, it’s unlikely that it competed with Erectus for either space or food — and there’s zero evidence to suggest that Erectus hunted them, much less to extinction.

So the diorama in this picture is inadvertently a monument to an enigma — truly, as some have dubbed it, “the mystery ape.”

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