Ancient giant ape showed no size difference between sexes, study finds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 6:30am

Males and females of the largest ape species that ever walked the Earth were of a similar size, suggesting they could be closer to humans than previously thought, according to a new study led by mainland scientists.

The mysterious Gigantopithecus Blacki, which some say may have been the model for mythical creatures Big Foot and the Yeti, reached a height of over three metres and weighed up to 540 kilograms. It became extinct suddenly about 100,000 years ago.

In the past, scientists believed that male G.blacki was larger than the female, in line with the characteristics of living non-human primates, such as gorillas: the larger the ape species, the greater the male’s dominance in size.

But the study, led by Dr Zhang Yingqi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and including researchers from Japan and the United States, came up with a different picture.

Examination of teeth fossils suggested the size differences between male and female G.blacki were so small that they could almost be ignored, according to the paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Zhang’s team measured the precise sizes of all the giant ape’s teeth found in China, including more than 500 that were discovered in recent years.

China has had the largest number of G.blacki fossil discoveries. More than 1,200 of the around 1,400 teeth found worldwide are from China, especially the southern regions of Guangxi, Guizhou and Hubei.

The teeth size variations reported by some previous studies as indicating differences between the sexes could in fact have been increases in dental size over time, the paper said. Carbon dating showed the larger teeth belonged to G.blacki of later ages.

The previous studies were based on a sample of over 700 teeth from five localities excavated prior to 1990, while the new study included teeth from 12 additional sites, which provided a much better understanding of the chronology of G.blacki, the authors said in the paper.

The first G.blacki teeth were discovered by German anthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald in 1935. He found a few abnormally giant molars in an apothecary’s shop and named the species “giant black ape”.

The giant ape remains mysterious to this day. Scientists still debate, for example, whether G.blacki was bipedal, because only teeth and a few jaw bones have been found.

Though the ape was believed to have existed alongside modern human beings for at least some thousands of years, and its huge size has led to speculation over its links to ancient legends about giants, the ape was not a predator.

Studies on the teeth suggested that G.blacki was a herbivore.