Home » Blog » 2003 » February » Bipedal apes? Part 3: Giganto-bloody-pithecus
Written by Graham on Wednesday 8th February 2023.
Gigantopithecus. The rather large face which launched a thousand attempts to explain Bigfoot. Is it possible that this gargantuan ape survived to the present day without leaving much of a trace?
My own personal feeling is: no. However, those suggesting such a scenario may not be too far from the truth, if a little inaccuracy has been thrown into the mix by the notoriety of Gigantopithecus.
Please, allow me to explain.
Of the eight surviving species of the family Hominidae, only one is bipedal (that would be us). While the subfamily Homininae (to which we belong) emerged in Africa, the Ponginae, as well as various other extinct groups, are primarily associated with Eurasia, with the surviving members of the former subfamily - the three species of orangutan - now restricted to the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. Fossil and subfossil orangutans are known from the mainland (Pongo weidenreichi in Pliocene-Pleistocene China and P. hooijeri from Vietnam) and their relatives - including our old (and very large) friend Gigantopithecus - formerly inhabited a much larger range, encompassing much of Asia.
Where the Gigantopithecus proponents get it right, in my opinion, is in seeking to associate cryptic apes of Eurasia and the Americas with the subfamily Ponginae, home to the three species (formerly two: the Tapanuli orangutan was only recognised as a separate species in 2017) of orangutan. While the fossil record for the African apes - the subfamily Homininae - is somewhat sparse, at least in terms of the non-human lineages (the gorillas are represented by the problematic Chororapithecus and perhaps Nakalipithecus, while the earliest fossils of the chimpanzees date from as late as the Pleistocene), the Ponginae are known from Miocene contexts onwards throughout Asia, with all but a few centred upon the regions of northern India/Pakistan, south east Asia and southern China. Four Tribes (a division of a subfamily) can be identified, with the relationship between them, roughly, as shown in this image: -
The following table considers all known extinct species regarded by some as members of the subfamily under consideration. (Please bear in mind that the exact taxonomic positions of many apes, particularly of the Miocene, are subject to hot debate, with academic conferences regularly descending into slanging matches, with the odd weedy-looking scientist with a combover and a cheap suit offering to settle scores with his rival in the venue's car park): -
|Khoratpithecus ayeyawadyensis||Pongini||Myanmar||9-7 Mya|
|Khoratpithecus chiangmuanensis||Pongini||Thailand||9-7 Mya|
|Khoratpithecus piriyai||Pongini||Thailand||9-7 Mya|
|Pongo weidenreichi||Pongini||southern China||2.58-1.80 Mya|
|Pongo hooijeri||Pongini||Vietnam||0.78 Mya|
|Sivapithecus indicus||Sivapithecini||Siwalik Hills & Kutch, India||12.5-10.5 Mya|
|Sivapithecus parvada||Sivapithecini||Siwalik Hills & Kutch, India||10 Mya|
|Sivapithecus sivalensis||Sivapithecini||Pothwar plateau, Pakistan||9.5-8.5 Mya|
|Indopithecus giganteus||Sivapithecini||Siwalik Hills, India||7.27-5.33 Mya|
|Ankarapithecus meteai||Sivapithecini||Ankara, Türkiye||7.27-5.33 Mya|
|Gigantopithecus blacki||Sivapithecini||southern China||2.00-0.3 Mya|
|Lufengpithecus hudienensis||Lufengpithecini||Yuanmou County, Yunnan, China||6.2-5.33 Mya|
|Lufengpithecus keiyuanensis||Lufengpithecini||Keiyuan County, Yunnan, China||6.2-5.33 Mya|
|Lufengpithecus lufengensis||Lufengpithecini||Shihuiba, Lufeng County, Yunnan, China||6.2-5.33 Mya|
|Meganthropus palaeojavanicus||Lufengpithecini||Sangiran, Surakarta, Java, Indonesia||2.59-0.78 Mya|
|Lufengpithecus spp.||Lufengpithecini||Longgupo, Sichuan, China||2.00 Mya|
|Hispanopithecus laietanus||Hispanopithecini||Iberian peninsula, Europe||11.1-9.5 Mya|
|Hispanopithecus crusafonti||Hispanopithecini||Iberian peninsula, Europe||11.1-9.5 Mya|
Besides Gigantopithecus, Meganthropus possibly stood about eight feet in height, whereas its continental relative would have been between a gibbon and P. weidenreichi in size. As P. weidenreichi was perhaps 20% larger than modern orangutans, this would place it in a range between about three to five feet, while Sivapithecus parvada is larger than the other members of its genus (S. sivalenis appears to have been similar in size to a common chimpanzee).
Lufengpithecus' foramen ovale (at the base of the skull) and femur (upper leg bone) have been interpreted as suggesting that this genus perhaps walked upright to some extent. Given the possibility that a tendency towards bipedalism emerged early in ape-like primates (compare the rather mysterious Oreopithecus bambolii of Miocene Sardinia), and the lack of fossil material for quadripedal African apes, the existence of non-hominin bipeds seems quite possible.
But what about Gigantopithecus?
Well, it is likely to have become extinct due to its specialisation, being a reliance on C3 plants for food, which would have become increasingly sparse as the climate once again shifted to an ice age. Its size - probably 9 feet, though some estimates suggesting a height as large as 15 - would've meant they would have required vast amounts of the stuff. The giant panda (which is not quite so giant a giant as Gigantopithecus) barely clings on to life in what remains of the once-vast bamboo forests of the Chinese mainland. Plus, the arrival of Homo erectus and, later, the great exterminator of macrofauna that is our own species, would've put paid to this enormous ape.
If - and, of course, it's a Gigantopithecus-high-estimate-sized if - a cousin of the orangutans did manage to survive, and weather the storm that is Homo sapiens encroaching on its turf, it was likely a member of the Lufengpithecini, with both the small and large varieties perhaps present during the not-too-distant past, maybe even walking around on two legs.
But... could they still be out there?
That's perhaps a question which is left to be explored: the fossil record is, as noted, pretty incomplete, and many people do claim to have encountered such beasts to the extent that a rank amateur such as I can attempt a taxonomy of sorts after only a brief look at the material (about twenty pages on Wikipedia, Gra? - Ed.). I do remain open to the idea that they are out there, though the evidence, as it exists, is, to say the least, sparse (if not nonexistent). However, reports do often come from sober types with long experience in the areas where these cryptids are said to live. And people from these areas are likely to know the difference between a bear and not-a-bear. So one never knows.
The truth is out there...
Categories: Cryptids; Cryptozoology; Hominoidea.