In 1935 G.H.R. von Koenigswald, while in Hong Kong searching for fossilized orangutan teeth, stumbled upon a very large lower third molar in a shop specimen drawer. Realizing that this tooth didn't belong to any known species, he promptly named it Gigantopithecus blacki. The genus meaning "giant ape" and the species in honor of a recently deceased friend. Von Koenigswald continued to search Asia for fossil remains and completed his journeys with a grand total of more than 1500 orangutan teeth, but only 4 G. blacki teeth (Coichon et al., 1990a). Because these teeth could not be associated with any sedimentary matrix or corresponding fauna, they represented little other than the existence of G. blacki itself. It wasn't until later that clues as to the time frame of G. blacki's existence would be found.
G. blacki continued to remain hidden until 1956, when during a dig at Daxin in Gaungxi, China, the first G. blacki tooth discovered in situ was unearthed. The cave in which it was found yielded Stegadon-Ailuropoda fauna, suggesting this find was from the mid-Pleistocene (Coichon et al., 1990a).
At the same time, north of Daxin at Liucheng Cave in Gaungxi, China, another team was searching for G. blacki. They were lead to a cave located 290 feet nearly straight up the face of a karst tower. Almost 100 feet into the cave the team hit pay dirt. During the first expedition the first G. blacki jaw found in situ was discovered. During excavations over a seven year period more than a thousand "Giganto" teeth were discovered along with two more jaws. The digs also produced a plethora of other mammalian species, and has been often thought of as one the most important finds in the history of modern paleoanthropology (Ciochon et al., 1990a). A dwarf species of giant panda, which is believed to be a direct ansestor of the modern giant panda, was found. This, along with the fact that no Homo erectus fossils were found, has led Chinese scientists to believe this cache is from the early Pleistocene, about 1 million years before present (B.P.)(Ciochon et al., 1990a)
During the mid 1960s an excavation at Tham Khuyen Cave, Vietnam, produced G. blacki teeth which were found in direct association with Homo erectus specimens. The faunal associations of these findings placed the find somewhere in the mid-Pleistocene (Ciochon et al., 1996).
Thanks to the invention of techniques that were independent of relative dating, these specimens were rexamined in 1995 by a technique referred to as electron-spin resonance (ESR) in order to discover their absolute age. ESR hinges on the idea that the best way to find the age of an artifact is to measure something that begins when the fossil is first buried and ends when it is recovered (Ciochon et al., 1990a). Electron-spin resonance, which is used mainly on teeth, is based on the radioactivity of the Earth itself. When a potential fossil is deposited into sediment it immediately receives a very low, constant dosage of radiation. Bombardment over thousands of years is enough to cause a buildup large enough to be measured. Using an ESR spectrometer the initial radioactivity of a specimen is measured. Then the specimen is exposed to a massive, known amount of radioactivity. The specimen's radioactivity is measured a second time and it's age can then be determined algebraically (Wanpo et al.,1995).
Upon reexamination of the Tham Khuyen Cave specimens it was calculated that the averaged general specimen estimate was around 450,000 years B.P.(Ciochon et al., 1996). Another site, Longgupo Cave, also produced G. blacki teeth in direct conjunction with not only Homo erectus teeth, but also primitive stone tools. Using the ESR dating technique this find was given an approximate date of one million years B.P. (Wanpo et al., 1995).
These findings suggest that "Giganto" and Homo erectus existed side by side for more than half a million years. If we accept the existence of some relationship between the two we may be able to explain why one became extinct during a time that the other flourished. G. blacki was well adapted to his particular environment. It may have been that the mere presence of Homo erectus was enough to upset the delicate balance that G. blacki needed to survive as a species (Chiochon et al., 1990a). However, this is a grand conjecture, when one realises it is derived merely from teeth found in the same place and dated to like times.
The teeth of G. blacki afford us something more than a date, though. Their size, shape, and wear patterns give us an elementary view of G. blacki's diet. The robust jaw bones complement the teeth morphology, causing many researchers to believe that G. blacki was evolutionaraly predispositioned to the consumption of large amounts of tough fibrous material. The similarity of the dental morphology found in the G. blacki specimens with that of the giant panda points to a diet consisting mainly of bamboo, a readily available food source found throughout the range of G. blacki (Ciochon et al., 1990b). It wasn't until 1988 that G. blacki's diet left the hypothetical and emerged, at least partially, into the absolute (Ciochon et al., 1990a). After a speech on the dietary habits of Gigantopithecus, Russell Ciochon was asked by a graduate student, named Robert Thompson, if the processes to find phytoliths on stone tools could be also be performed on fossilized teeth. Phytoliths are solidified silicates that form in plant cells. Due to the unique shape they take on when casting the cells of different varities of plants, phytoliths can often be identified to the familial and generic levels(Ciochon, et al., 1990b).
Four G. blacki teeth were procured for inspection; an incisor, canine, molar, and premolar. After a careful cleaning and inspection process, two teeth were found to have no imbedded phytoliths. However, the other two teeth contained at least 30 structures that could be positively identified as phytoliths. These thirty microscopic specimens could be broken down into two basic types. The first were from the vegetative parts of grasses. Unfortunately they could not be identified beyond the family level, neither confirming nor refuting the bamboo hypothesis. The second were found to be from the fruit of a species from the Moraceae or closely related family. It is thought that these fruits may have been a supplement to the relatively poor diet of bamboo that is suspected to have been employed by G. blacki. This consumption of fruit may account for the abnormally high occurrence of cavities (11%) in G. blacki teeth (Ciochon, et al., 1990b).
The three lower jaw bones and thousand or so teeth of Gigantopithecus blacki fail to give an accurate account of the actual size attained by the creature. Bill Munns, a makeup artist currently working for a model-making company, approached Ciochon and asked for help in reconstructing the extinct ape for a traveling display. First, they produced a hypothetical skull proportional to the dimensions of the G. blacki jaws. This skull measured eighteen inches from the bottom of the jaw to the highest point on the sagittal crest. A body was produced for the skull using a 1:6.5 ratio. In humans the head to body ratio is about one to seven, while "Lucy" has a ratio of one to eight. This particular ratio was used for the reconstruction of G. blacki because a higher ratio caused the head to look too large (Ciochon et al., 1990a).
Next came the appendages. The relationship between fore and hind limbs is often expressed as a ratio of one hundred. Thus, if the hind and fore limb equal each other then the index is 100, however, an index of 60 would mean that the arms were 60% the length of the legs. After studying other primate indices, Munns set G. blacki's intermembral index at 108 (Ciochon et al., 1990a).
Things add up quickly. When Munns applied these numbers to three dimensions, he found an animal that would have stood over ten feet tall and weighed as much as 1,200 pounds. In comparison, the average male gorilla is about six feet tall and weights only 400 pounds. Human males average five feet ten inches and 180 pounds (Ciochon et al., 1990a).
Some people go so far as to say that Gigantopithecus blacki still exists today, and is the cause of Bigfoot, Yeti, and Wildman phenomena. Whether or not this hypothesis is viable, we have teeth and jaws that tell of a giant ape that lived and died long ago in the jungles of Southeast Asia. We have evidence that shows that G. blacki ate grasses of some sort, and enjoyed fruit from time to time. But what was G. blacki's social life like? Was he a knuckle walker, or did he stand erect? With the discovery and investigation of Gigantopithecus blacki more questions arise than are answered. All we can do is study what we have and continue to search for more clues that tell us about G. blacki and it's world.
Ciochon, Russell, J. Olson, J. James. 1990a. Other Origins: The search for the giant ape in human prehistory. New York: Bantam. 262pp
Ciochon, R. L., D. R. Piperno, and R. G. Thompson. 1990b. Opal phytoliths on the teeth of the extinct ape Gigantopithecus blacki: Implications on paloedietary studies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 87:8120-8124.
Wanpo, H., R. Ciochon, G. Yumin, R. Larick, F. Qiren, H. Schwarcz, C. Yonge, J. De Vos, and W. Rink. 1995. Early Homo and associated artefacts from Asia. Nature (London), 378:275-278.