Pleistocene Land of Giants Robust Pithecanthropus Meganthropus and Gigantic Apes as Ancestors

Without needing the permission of a cumbersome bureaucracy spanning two continents, as did Weidenreich, Ralph von Koenigswald simply took his Javan fossils, which included the Ngandong specimens, and buried them in his garden when calamity threatened. In 1941 he was captured by the invading Japanese army and spent most of the war interned or in a prison camp in Java. Only one of the fossils, Ngandong Skull XI, was confiscated by the Japanese. After the war it was discovered in the emperor's household museum in Tokyo by a U.S. army officer who had studied anthropology in college,19 and who later returned it to von Koenigswald. When the war ended in 1945, von Koenigswald dug up his fossils and was soon on a ship to New York with them.

In the years following his 1941 departure from China, and while von Koenigswald was incommunicado in Japanese-held Java, Weidenreich labored over his magnum opus, his final description and interpretation of the Longgushan fossils—"The Skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis, A Comparative Study of a Primitive Hominid Skull."20 The salient anatomical features of this species had been known in general terms for years, and many of the observations were the same as for the first skull and had been published by Davidson Black. But Weidenreich wanted to know why the Sinanthropus skull looked the way it did.

Weidenreich's explanation for the profile of the skull relied largely on the small brain size of Sinanthropus. Some of the other aspects of the skull, such as the projecting browridges, could plausibly be related to the small brain size. Weidenreich also thought that standing upright on two legs had transformed the Sinanthropus skull. He thought that as the human skull became adapted to sitting atop the spine, it had folded, bending at a crease running from ear to ear under the skull, thereby bringing the face down and under the skull, flexing its basicranium. The face of Sinanthropus had become shorter and less projecting than the faces of apes in this process called "basicranial flexion." Weidenreich's final word on his explanation was a volume written as a Memoir of the American Philosophical Society entitled "The Brain and Its Role in the Phylogenetic Transformation of the Skull."21 Here he argued that as the brain increased in size it caused an underfolding of the face, a reduction in forward projection of the face ("prognathism"), and resulted in a more globular head balanced upon the vertebral column. To bolster his point, Weidenreich used examples from the skull anatomy of domestic dogs, which showed a trend toward reduction of the snout with increased brain size.

Most anatomists and anthropologists were convinced by Weidenreich's arguments—to a point. The problem of the thick skull bones and the massive, rounded tori of bone around the Sinanthropus skull continued to bedevil a straightforward interpretation of the evolutionary transformation of small-brained, apelike skull to large-brained, humanlike skull. Neither modern humans nor apes have this skull anatomy. And if large-brained primates like people do have thick skulls, and smaller-brained primates like apes do not have thick skulls, what then causes Sinanthropus to have a thick skull? Logically, it must be something other than brain size. The Javan fossils were to provide Weidenreich with what he thought was his answer.

By 1941 von Koenigswald had discovered and published on fossils from Java that could be interpreted in a size-graded series—from large to small. Weidenreich was able to construct what he considered a gigantic ancestry for hominids. From a large jaw that von Koenigswald had named Megan-thropuspalaeojavicus ("huge man of ancient Java"); to an upper jaw with teeth that von Koenigswald had named Pithecanthropus robustus ("robust ape-man"); to Pithecanthropus erectus, the smallest of the Javan group; to, finally, the most gracile of his hypothesized lineage, Sinanthropus pekinensis from Longgushan, this sequence explained skull thickness by a heritage of huge body size. It was a bold hypothesis and one that caused Weidenreich's colleagues to raise their eyebrows.22 Yet it explained what was a very important anatomical peculiarity of the Sinanthropus skull. If Sinanthropus had descended from giants, then the non-modern-human and non-modern-ape aspects of his skull anatomy could be explained as a primitive retention. Weidenreich published his gigantism theory in the 1946 book Apes, Giants, and Man, and in a joint paper with von Koenigswald.

In addition to its novelty, Weidenreich's theory had another problem. Where were the giant apes from which giant hominids evolved? The living Asian apes, the orangutan and the gibbon, were too small to be convincing descendants of some gigantic ancestor. The only living ape that might fit the bill was the gorilla, but gorillas live only in central and western Africa, a long way from China. However, a gorilla-sized fossil ape had been discovered and named by von Koenigswald, who had discovered isolated teeth of such a creature in the dragon bones that he had bought in southern China. He had named this extinct Chinese ape Gigantopithecus blacki, in honor of Davidson Black.23 Weidenreich seized on this undated and poorly known ape as the progenitor of his giant hominid lineage, even suggesting that it should be renamed Giganthropus ("giant human").

Weidenreich's gigantism theory of human evolution is today largely forgotten, having been disproved by a rising tide of discovery of earlier fossil forbears from Africa and Asia. We now know that the human species descended not from giants but from pygmy-sized early hominids in Africa millions of years before any of them ever ventured into Asia. Weidenreich hypothesized that India would be the place that ultimate human origins would be discovered. In this he was also mistaken. Indo—Pakistan is now known as having been a locus of ape evolution 8 to 12 million years ago that gave rise to ancestors of the orangutan and to Gigantopithecus, still a poorly known ape but certainly not a homi-

Homo Erectus Molar

Homo erectus compared to Gigantopithecus. Franz Weidenreich proposed a theory in 1945, not supported by subsequent discoveries, in which giant hominoids such as Gigantopithecus gave rise to early humans. Figured are two upper molar teeth bought in Chinese apothecaries by G. H. R. von Koenigswald: Gigantopithecus blacki (specimen 3), recovered in Canton, China, in 1935 (left), and Homo erectus (type specimen of Sinanthropus officinalis), recovered in Hong Kong in 1935 (right).

Homo erectus compared to Gigantopithecus. Franz Weidenreich proposed a theory in 1945, not supported by subsequent discoveries, in which giant hominoids such as Gigantopithecus gave rise to early humans. Figured are two upper molar teeth bought in Chinese apothecaries by G. H. R. von Koenigswald: Gigantopithecus blacki (specimen 3), recovered in Canton, China, in 1935 (left), and Homo erectus (type specimen of Sinanthropus officinalis), recovered in Hong Kong in 1935 (right).

nid. But Weidenreich's gigantism theory explained one important aspect of Sinanthropus anatomy that remained unaccounted for when his theory was tossed out. Why did the remarkably thick and robust skull of Sinanthropus evolve? And if not from the pachyostotic skull form of giant ancestors, then how? We propose a new theory in chapter 4.

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