The REAL Bigfoot: Gigantopithecus Would Have Been Terrifying to our Ancient Ancestors
From legends of Bigfoot to films like Mighty Joe Young, humans seem to have a fascination with giant ape-like creatures. This leads to the question of whether stories about giant apes have a basis in reality. Although the evidence for Bigfoot is ambiguous, there is fossil evidence for very large apes living in the past, particularly Gigantopithecus, a genus that once lived in China and Southeast Asia.
Discovering an Ancient “Bigfoot”
Gigantopithecus was first discovered when a paleontologist found a molar belonging to a giant ape while examining bones said to be dragon bones in a Chinese apothecary. After the discovery of the molar, hundreds of other teeth were revealed that apparently belonged to a mysterious giant ape with yellowish-stained teeth. Because of the color, it was dubbed “yellow earth fauna.”
Holotype (molar) of Giganthopithecus blacki, in the background Prof. Friedemann Schrenk, Senckenberg-Institut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In 1956, a jaw belonging to the creature was discovered by a Chinese farmer which gave paleontologists a better understanding of the nature of Gigantopithecus. Since its discovery, scientists have learned much more about this mysterious ape. It probably first evolved about 9 million years ago in China and did not become extinct until about 300,000 years ago, the time of Homo Heidelbergensis . Based on comparison with the tooth size to body size ratio in modern ape species, paleontologists estimate that a member of a Gigantopithecus species could have been up to 10 feet ( meters) tall and probably weighed as much as 1,200 lbs ( kg). For comparison, gorillas usually weigh no more than 400 lbs ( kg).
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The range of Gigantopithecus appears to have been restricted to China and Southeast Asia, and parts of India. Based on studies of the teeth, it most likely the creature ate fruit as well as shrubs and grasses, such as bamboo. It is possible that Gigantopithecus had an ecological role similar to that of the giant panda, subsisting primarily on bamboo and supplementing its diet with roots and fruit.
Since only its jaws and teeth have actually been found, it is not possible to determine the exact appearance of Gigantopithecus. Based on its predicted weight, size, and shared ancestry with knuckle-walking apes such as gorillas, paleontologists believe that it was most likely a knuckle-walker with quadrupedal locomotion.
Lower mandible of Gigantopithecus blacki (cast). In the collections of The College of Wooster, Ohio. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Causes of Extinction
Although the genus was relatively long-lived, lasting almost 9 million years, the last of the genus went extinct about 300,000 yeas ago. One reason for this may have been that Gigantopithecus had a very specialized diet - meaning that it could only subsist on certain foods. If the main source of food for the ape disappeared, Gigantopithecus would not have easily switched to a different food source.
Bamboo, for example, has regular massive die offs every couple of decades. An animal heavily dependent on bamboo for food, such as the giant panda, would be at risk of starvation every time this occurred. Furthermore, if an unusually long time-interval between the die-off and the rebound of the bamboo population occurred, an already small animal population might even be at risk of extinction. Examination of Gigantopithecus teeth indicates that there were prolonged periods of malnourishment in which Gigantopithecus populations did not have regular access to food, which may well have been caused by these periodic die-offs of bamboo.
Restoration of Gigantopithecus blacki as appeared at "Gigants" exhibition in the Czech Republic, 2014. (Michal Mañas/ CC BY 4.0 )
In addition to food shortages, Gigantopithecus also appears to have matured slowly based on studies of the development of fossilized teeth, implying that it had a low reproduction rate. Thus, if a large percentage of the population died from starvation, it would take a long time for the population to recover and increase the risk of extinction.
Additionally, Gigantopithecus would have had to compete with Homo Erectus and possibly giant pandas if bamboo made up a large part of their diet. Competition with other animals combined with the other factors and may have helped lead to their final extinction in the late Pleistocene.
Homo erectus skull, Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )