From the Teeth of the Dragon – Gigantopithecusblacki
by Eric Pettifor
In ancient Greek mythology a hero named Jason yoked two fire breathing bulls and plowed a field. Into the furrows he sowed dragons' teeth from which sprang men (Hamilton, 1942).
The Chinese have for centuries sold 'dragons' teeth and bones to be ground up as a medicinal. These bones are actually ancient fossils. In 1935 G.H.R. Von Koenigswald discovered a fossil tooth in an apothecary shop in Hong Kong (von Koenigswald, 1952). Since then 3 jaw bones and over a thousand teeth have been recovered, not only in apothecary shops but in situ as well (Ciochon, Olsen, & James, 1990). They are the remains of an extinct ape, Gigantopithecus blacki. There are sites where Gigantopithecus blacki remains occur along with Homoerectus, such as at Tham Khuyen in Viet Nam, and in the Hubei and Sichuan provinces of China (Ciochon et al., 1990). At Tham Khuyen the remains of a potential competitor for bamboo, a proposed major food source of Gigantopithecus blacki, were found as well: the giant panda, now extinct in Viet Nam (Ciochon et al., 1990). Gigantopithecus teeth from Wuming, China have been dated to the middle Pleistocene, around 400,000 B.P., by faunal association. Homo erectus was in Asia by that time and may have played a role in the extinction of Gigantopithecus (Ciochon et al., 1990)
According to Ciochon et al. (1990), Gigantopithecus blacki was 10 feet tall and weighed 1,200 pounds. This is speculative, since it is with some uncertainty that one reconstructs such a massive creature from a few jaw bones and teeth, however many. The way they arrived at this picture was first to estimate the size of the head from the jaw, and then to use a head/body ratio of 1:6.5 in order to determine the body size. For comparison they cite a head/body ratio of 1:8 for the Australopithecus afarensis specimen known as 'Lucy'. The more conservative ratio for Gigantopithecus was arrived at out of consideration of the massive jaw as an adaptation to the mastication of fibrous plant matter (probably bamboo). Gigantopithecus was probably proportionally a markedly big jawed creature. For the head shape they based their assumptions on the orangutan, since evolutionarily they place Gigantopithecus on the same line as the orangutan, finding a common ancestor for them both in Sivapithecus. However, the orangutan could not serve as a model for the body, since it is unlikely that a 1,200 pound ape would be as arboreal. Therefore they chose the largest primates known, the gorilla and the extinct giant baboon Theropithecus oswaldi, as their models for the body. They gave Gigantopithecus an intermembral index 108 (gorilla at 120 + Theropithecus at 95 divide by 2 = 108 rounded up – very scientific!) (Ciochon et al., 1990).
Since Ciochon (et al, 1990) with aid of Bill Munn (Hollywood monster maker/dinosaur reflesher) were interested as well in building a very impressive life size model we would be wise to consider the dimensions with some caution, and note that they represent the biggest Gigantopithecus that could be built rationalized from the actual remains, and that it is a male. Females may have been half the size of the males, since the teeth fall markedly into two distinct size groupings (Ciochon et al., 1990), as I will discuss later in terms of sexual dimorphism and what inferences have been drawn.
Elwyn L. Simons and Peter C. Ettel (1970) paint a somewhat different picture. They trace Gigantopithecus back to a dryopithicine origin and their corresponding reconstruction is essentially a giant gorilla, 9 feet tall, weighing 600 pounds. It is not nearly as attractive as the giant orangutan/gorilla cross created by Ciochon et al. and Bill Munn (1990)
Simons and Ettel (1970) do go into greater detail regarding the mandibles, however, and speculate that the size differential between two of them (Mandibles I and III) reflects sexual dimorphism. The way that the teeth fall into two distinct categories was discovered by Charles Oxnard, an Australian anatomist, when he analyzed 735 Gigantopithecus teeth. All teeth from the first incisors through the third molars occurred in both groups in equal numbers (Oxnard, 1987, cited in Ciochon et al., 1990). Furthermore, the size differential is greater than that occurring in any living primate including both gorillas and orangutans. Ciochon (et al., 1990) note that in living species this usually indicates competition between males for multiple females, but go on to note Oxnard's argument that the equal numbers of males and females suggests general promiscuity free from competition. “The resultant increased proportion of females pregnant at any one time under such a system (perhaps almost all of them), together with harsh environmental conditions, including fierce predator pressure, could combine to produce small inter- or intra-sexual selection, but strong sex-role differences and therefore strong sexual dimorphism.” (Oxnard, 1987, cited in Ciochon et al, 1990). This sounds good, but does not address the fact that even in species with marked sexual dimorphism and sexual competition, males and females will be born in more or less equal numbers and can reasonably be expected to leave behind equal numbers of teeth. It seems that this is an instance where complex social behaviour is difficult to determine solely from physical remains, especially remains as regrettably incomplete as those of Gigantopithecus. If there are analogies to be made with living primates exhibiting marked sexual dimorphism, equal numbers of surviving male and female teeth cannot be a factor in the analysis.
Geographical distribution is likewise sketchy, since the majority of remains are from one site, Liucheng Cave in Liuzhou, China, though there have been other finds in Viet Nam and in China, so that we may define south east Asia as the range of Gigantopithecus blacki. A separate species of Gigantopithecus, Gigantipithecus giganteus, was found in northern India, but this specimen predates Gigantopithecus blacki by about five million years, and there is some controversy as to the exact nature of its relationship. Simons and Ettel (1970) place it as directly ancestral to Gigantopithecus blacki, while David W. Frayer (1972) argues that it is ancestral to the Australopithicines, only to be refuted by Robert S. Corrucini (1973) on the basis of multivariate analysis and so on. Physical remains for this species are even rarer than for Gigantopithecusblacki and the opportunity for speculation and statistical gamesmanship is correspondingly greater.
Ciochon et al., (1990) speculate that given its size Gigantopithecusblacki was a ground dwelling ape, probably a knuckle walker, though it could just as easily been a fist walker, the exact nature of its locomotion is impossible to ascertain from mandibles. Given its mass it could not have been a gibbon-like brachiator.
When considering diet, the teeth can provide us with stronger clues via analysis of opal phytoliths.
An alternative technique [to analysis of wear patterns and other conventional methods of ascertaining diet] based on the identification of opal phytoliths found bonded to the enamel surfaces of the teeth of extinct species allows for identification of the actual plant remains eaten by an animal prior to its death. Thus the vegetative dietary preferences of an extinct species no longer have to be inferred but can be Demonstrated directly through the identification of phytoliths, the inorganic remains of plant cells, on the teeth of extinct species.
(Russell L. Ciochon, Dolores R. Piperno, and Robert G. Thompson, 1990)
In an analysis of 4 Gigantopithecus teeth, Ciochon et al. (2) (1990) identified 30 structures which were “indisputably phytoliths” on two of the teeth. These thirty broke down into two categories: the vegetative parts of grasses, and the fruits and seeds of dicotyledons.
Prior to the phytolith study Ciochon was pursuing a theory of massive bamboo consumption on the part of Gigantopithecus using analogy to the penchant of other megaherbivores to depend upon a single or limited number of plants. Creatures the size of Gigantopithecus would need a source which existed in abundance. The most likely candidate is bamboo. Further, the teeth seemed to point in that direction as well:
The molar teeth of Giganto are low-crowned and flat, with very thick enamel caps. The premolars are molarized: that is, they have become broad and flattened, and thus resemble molars. The canine teeth are not sharp and pointed, but are rather broad and flat, more like what one would expect premolars to be; the incisors are small, peglike, and closely packed. These observations, combined with the massive jaw morphology, make it really an inevitable conclusion that the animal was adapted to the consumption of tough fibrous foods by cutting, crushing, and grinding them.
(Ciochon et al., 1990)
Ciochon et al., (1990) then go on to compare this morphology with that of the giant panda, another bamboo eater, and infers a diet of bamboo for Gigantopithecus.
While bamboo is a grass, the phytolith analysis does not technically either confirm or deny this theory, since it is not capable of defining the type of grass the phytolith came from. What was surprising to Ciochon was the suggestion of fruit in the diet of Gigantopithecus. Ciochon et al (2) (1990) have identified the fruit as belonging to a species in the family Moraceae or a closely related family and state “Judging from the present frequency of dental phytoliths in Gigantopithecus, fruits may have constituted a significant portion of the diet,” and go on to note that the high sugar content of this type of fruit may be responsible for the high incidence of cavities in Gigantopithecus teeth (11%).
The results of this study are reported in less complete and less technical terms in the book Other Origins (Ciochon et al, 1990), and in a review of that book Jeffrey H. Schwartz (1991) notes that a great deal is being drawn from the analysis of four teeth, upon only two of which were found phytoliths, with the greatest concentration on only one. Clearly a larger sample of teeth need to be similarly analyzed, but reading the report it is difficult not to share Ciochon's (et al. (2) 1990) excitement at the findings and for the employment of this technique in paleoanthropology in general.
Ciochon (et al. 1990) propose three factors as being potentially related to the extinction of Gigantopithecus blacki and all are interrelated: dependence on bamboo, the giant panda, and Homo erectus. Bamboo is prone to periodic die offs, the exact reason for which is unknown. The giant panda was contemprous with Gigantopithecus blacki and may have been in competition with it for the same food source. The final straw, however, may have been the introduction of Homo erectus into the region. All three creatures, panda, Giganto, and Homo, may have been fond of the sprouts of the bamboo as a food source (as are living pandas), which means that plants would have been consumed before they had a chance to reach maturity and reproduce. Further, Homo erectus may have been using bamboo for tools. In archaeology it was traditionally assumed that Asia was a cultural backwater during the stone age due to its lack of sophisticated stone tool kits like those found in Europe, but this attitude is changing as consideration is given to the wide variety of uses of bamboo, not only in theory, but as witnessed in practice in Asia through historical times into the present. Likewise, there is much debate around Homo erectus' proclivity for hunting, but another possible factor in the extinction of Gigantopithecus blacki is that it may have been hunted. Ciochon (et al., 1990) believes that it was likely a combination of factors, with the entry of Homo erectus into Gigantopithecus' range upsetting an already delicate balance. No one factor was likely absolute. For example, if Homo erectus had monopolized the fruit supply it would have left Gigantopithecus blacki with no back up when a periodic bamboo die off occurred. This coupled with competition from the giant panda and sporadic hunting could have been enough to reduce breeding populations of Gigantopithecus below viable levels. (Ciochon et al., 1990)
Some suggest that Gigantopithecus blacki did not in fact become extinct, and continues to exist as the Sasquatch and the Yeti. Gigantopithecus blacki could have crossed the Bering Land Bridge, the same way humans are thought to have entered the New World (Geoffrey Bourne, 1975, cited in Ciochon et al., 1990). So far, though there have been many alleged sightings, no indisputable physical evidence has been recovered. One is led to suspect that the question of Sasquatch (and related entities) is more for comparative mythology, cultural anthropology, or psychology, since an actual creature the size of Gigantopithecus blacki existing in numbers sufficient to qualify as a breeding population would not only leave physical remains, but would have an observable effect on their environment.
An old Sherpa once observed: “There is a yeti in the back of everyone's mind; only the blessed are not haunted by it.”
LAMA SURYA DAS, A YETI TALE
FORMERLY AT HTTP://WWW.DZOGCHEN.ORG/YETI/YTALE1.HTML
We have cast the dragon's teeth, and something has sprung up. Is it a giant with the pleasing features of an orangutan and the impressive body of a gorilla? Perhaps it is a mega-gorilla, a prototype King Kong. Perhaps it will turn out to be something really surprising. One thing, though, is clear.
We need more data.
Ciochon, Russell L., Dolores R. Piperno, and Robert G. Thompson, 1990. Opal phytoliths found on the teeth of the extinct ape Gigantopithecus blacki: Implications for paleodietary studies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 87: 8120-8124.
Ciochon, Russel L., John Olsen, and Jamie James, 1990. Other Origins: The Search for the Giant Ape in Human Prehistory. New York: Bantam Books.