Giant Ape—A giant ape shown alongside the silhouette of a modern human to give an idea of size. They may have been even larger than this, although it is not known if they were bipedal. (Phil Miller)
Scientific name: Gigantopithecus blacki and G. giganteus Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Primates Family: Hominidae
When did it become extinct? The giant apes are thought to have become extinct around 200,000 years ago.
Where did it live? The remains of G. blacki have been found in southern China and northern Vietnam, while the remains of G. giganteus have been found in northern India.
A visit to the Himalayas would not be complete without tales of yeti, the hairy, apelike creatures that are supposed to inhabit this immense mountain range. As long ago as the 1830s, explorers to these majestic mountains have returned with tales of this beast, tales that have captured the public's imagination. As there is no irrefutable proof of the yeti's existence, it will never be more than a yarn to scare mountaineers; however, 200,000 years ago, there were at least two species of giant ape that lived in Asia, though apart from their size, they bear little resemblance to the cryptozoological accounts that fire the imagination.
In 1935, the respected paleontologist Ralph von Koenigswald visited a traditional Chinese medicine shop and found the molars of what were undoubtedly a primate. Fossil teeth were coveted in Chinese medicine. Known as dragon's teeth, they were ground down into a powder for use in a variety of treatments. The teeth von Koenigswald found were saved from being crushed and were formally identified as coming from the mouth of an extinct primate. Since the discovery of these first teeth, other fossils of these primates have come to light, including more teeth and several jawbones from various cave sites. At the moment, this is all we have to go on, but paleontologists have put forward several ideas as to what these animals looked like and how they lived. In the same way that reconstructions of the giant shark have been produced from nothing more than teeth (see the earlier entry in this chapter), paleontologists have used the teeth and jawbones of these giant apes to build a picture of what the living creatures may have been like.
As their name suggests, the giant apes were large animals. Estimates for just how large they were vary, but some experts think that G. blacki (the larger of the two species) could have been 450 kg. As no leg bones of these animals have ever been found, we cannot say for sure exactly how they moved, though they most likely walked around on all fours like gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). If G. blacki were to rear up on its hind legs, it's estimated to have been over 3 m tall—a truly startling thing to imagine. Obviously, these estimates have to be treated with caution because all we have to go on are the teeth, and it is possible that they belonged to an ape with a disproportionately large head. If the size estimates of the giant apes are correct, they were the largest primates that have ever lived, and the largest species was more than twice the weight of the largest male gorilla. Like those of the gorillas, the molars of the giant apes appear to be suited to pulverizing plant food. It's believed that they made use of the forests of bamboo that grow in Southeast Asia, much in the same way as the living giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca ).
Most of the remains of the giant ape have been found in caves, but it is very unlikely that the living animal was a cave dweller. No primates, except humans, routinely frequent caves, so why have the remains of this extinct ape come to light in such situations? The answer is porcupines. These prickly animals will drag all manner of things back to their lair to gnaw on, and thousands of years ago, the bones of giant apes were among the things they collected. Porcupines and their love of gnawing is also the reason we find nothing more substantial than the teeth and jawbones of the giant apes. Porcupines gnawed at the limb bones and the other large pieces of the skeleton until there was nothing left, except the very hard enamel caps of the teeth and the compact bone of the mandible.
The most recent remains of the giant apes are around 200,000 years old, and there is currently no evidence as to how or exactly when they died out. Regardless of exactly when these giant primates died out, our ancient ancestors Homo erectus, who had reached as far east as Indonesia at least 840,000 years ago, may have come into contact with them. Their reaction to these animals is hard to imagine, but if the giant apes were gentle plant eaters, they could have been just another animal to kill and eat.
One thing is certain: the bones of this animal are very rare, but it's hopefully only a matter of time before more complete remains are unearthed to give us a better idea of how this animal looked and when it vanished.
♦ The yeti is known by many names, including the "abominable snowman," a name that was undoubtedly coined by British explorers in the nineteenth century. There are monasteries in Nepal that treasure the supposed remains of the yeti, including a scalp and the bones of a hand. Tests have been conducted on the scalp, and the skin is actually from a goat.
♦ The tales of the yeti are not the only stories of giant primates. There are reports of large bipedal primates from other parts of the world, the most familiar of which is the Sasquatch (bigfoot) of North America. The world is certainly huge, with many remote places, but is it big enough to hide viable populations of 300- to 500-kg primates during more than 500 years of intense exploration? As the bones of the giant ape testify, the earth, at some point, has been home to huge primates, but the chances of them surviving into the modern day, amid more than 6 billion humans, are vanish-ingly small. Stories of the Sasquatch and yeti undoubtedly capture the public's interest, but the stark realization is that they are probably nothing more than figments of the imagination.
Further Reading: Simons, E.L., and P. C. Ettel. "Gigantopithecus" Scientific American, January 1970; Ciochon, R. L., J. Olsen, and J. James. Other Origins: The Search for the Giant Ape in Human Prehistory. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
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