Tech UPTechnologyGigantopithecus: the real King Kong

Gigantopithecus: the real King Kong

 

On March 7, 1933, the movie “King Kong” premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace wrote the script about a giant ape found on a lost island that has remained intact and where prehistoric species still live. The film went down in film history for its pioneering special effects, the use of machines to recreate the monster, and a plot that reconstructed the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast. The success of King Kong has made him one of the most famous monsters, an icon of popular culture and one of the most reused characters in movies, series, books, games and comics.

In 1935, two years after the film’s release, paleontologist Ralph von Koenigswald found the fossilized remains of a giant ape. The legendary monster went from fiction on the screen to palpable reality in the hand of a scientist.

Fossils in a pharmacy

The first discovery of fossil remains belonging to Gigantopithecus was in a pharmacy. Traditional Chinese medicine uses fossils as magical objects with healing qualities. German paleontologist Ralph von Koenigswald walked into a Hong Kong pharmacy to take a look at the fossil pieces for sale. Among those “dragon teeth” offered by the Chinese pharmacist, Koenigswald found a striking tooth. It was a large molar. It belonged to a primate, but to an unknown species. Koenigswald spent a few years looking for more similar evidence. He found three more teeth and was able to establish the existence of an extinct ape, the largest primate known to us to date: he named it Gigantopithecus blacki , which means “giant ape”, and the species in memory of his friend Davidson Black.

The start of World War II stopped any attempts to investigate Koenigswald. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese and it is said that the teeth of Gigatopithecus were buried in the courtyard of a friend’s house on the island of Java.

Was it a monkey or a giant human?

During the war, paleoanthropologist Franz Weidenreich was able to escape Beijing with plaster models of the four teeth found by Koenigswald. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Weidenreich devoted himself to studying the remains and comparing them to Homo erectus fossils found in Java. Weidenreich saw a lot of resemblance between the teeth of both species, so he ventured to defend that human evolution could have had a period of gigantism, as has occurred in other animal species. He argued that modern humans would be smaller-sized descendants of Gigantopithecus , erroneously regarded as an ape by Koenigswald.

The discovery of more remains and new approaches ended up disproving Weidenreich’s theory.

What was Gigantopithecus like?

Despite the interest that the largest ape that has walked our planet may arouse, we hardly know anything about this genre. Fossil remains are limited to teeth and jaws, which makes study difficult and information on Gigantopithecus limited to estimates.

The most striking estimate is that of its size. Researchers believe that Gigantopithecus could have been between 1.8 and 3 meters tall, weighing between 200 and 500 kilos . Although it would not reach the fictional dimensions of King Kong, these measurements would make it the largest extinct primate on record.

His appearance has sometimes been recreated in the image of other legendary beings such as the Yeti or Big Foot. King Kong has had its influence, as Gigantopithecus is often imagined looking like a huge gorilla. However, today we know that they were the ancestors of orangutans, not gorillas, as was thought at the beginning of the 20th century.

Why did Gigantopithecus become extinct?

The analysis of the teeth through modern scientific techniques has allowed us to know that these enormous apes had a diet based on bamboo and fruits. Although its population is located in Eurasia, most of the remains have been found in India, China and Thailand, in areas that indicate that Gigantopithecus lived in dense and humid forests , where it had access to all the resources necessary to live.

But 300,000 years ago the climate and the action of Homo erectus could have wiped out this species. During the Pleistocene there were coolings that dried up large forested areas and ended up being converted into savannahs. This withdrawal from its habitat, together with the presence of Homo erectus , created insurmountable competition for resources for Gigantopithecus , which, unable to adapt to the new conditions, disappeared.

References:

Married, D. 2005. King Kong was Asian and ate bamboo. 20minutes.es.

Lopatin, A. et al. 2022. Gigantopithecus blacki (Primates, Ponginae) from the Lang Trang Cave (Northern Vietnam): The Latest Gigantopithecus in the Late Pleistocene? Doklady Biological Sciences 502, 6-10. DOI: 10.1134/S0012496622010069.

Zhang, Y. et al. 2014. New 400–320 ka Gigantopithecus blacki remains from Hejiang Cave, Chongzuo City, Guangxi, South China. Quaternary International 354, 35-45. DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2013.12.008.

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