Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

A Giganto Mystery

Reading Time: 2 minutes
A scale diagram showing an attempted approximation of a maximally large Gigantopithecus blacki based on known fossil elements, shown rearing on two feet for a better comparison with a 180 cm tall human male. The postcranial anatomy of G. blacki is based on Pongo but altered to fit a more massive predominantly quadrupedal terrestrial ape.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This month, Origin Stories podcast explores the mysterious tale of the largest primate that ever lived. Gigantopithecus blacki is an extinct relative of orangutans that lived in Southeast Asia and stood around 10 feet tall.

It was first discovered in 1935 when anthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald came across a gigantic tooth at a market in Hong Kong. He recognized it as belonging to a primate, but one that was much larger than any known ape or monkey. This began a decades-long search for fossil remains of this 10-foot-tall creature. Scientists have since uncovered several thousand teeth and some sections of jawbone, but to date, no one has found bones from the body of Gigantopithecus.

Fossil teeth of Gigantopithecus blacki from Baeryan cave, Bijie county, Guizhou Province. 1-occlusal view, 2-lateral view.
Credit: ZHAO Lingxia

Gigantopithecus is the only ape known to become extinct during the last 2.6 million years.1 Why did this giant primate vanish while humans persevered? Leakey Foundation grantee Dr. Kira Westaway is part of an international research team searching for clues about how, when, and why it disappeared. With support from The Leakey Foundation, the research team’s project will yield critical new insights about extinction with implications for primate and human survival.

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Origin Stories is made possible by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, Jeanne Newman, the Joan and Arnold Travis Education Fund, and listeners like you!

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Ciochon, R., Piperno, D., Thompson, R., 1990. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 87, 8120-8124

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