The world's largest primate, a 10-foot-tall giant with inch-wide teeth, lived in southeast Asia for many centuries alongside human beings, according to a leading researcher.
Exploring remote caves isolated in a densely forested region of southern China, Jack Rink, a professor of geography and earth sciences at McMaster University in Ontario, found fossilized remains of the huge ape.
Using sophisticated fossil dating techniques, Rink determined that the primate, known to scientists as Gigantopithecus blackii, lived between 300,000 and a million years ago. Humans also existed in the area at that time.
"A missing piece of the puzzle has always focused on pinpointing when Gigantopithecus existed," said Rink. "This is a primate that co-existed with humans at a time when humans were undergoing a major evolutionary change."
Dating a Big Ape
Interest in the primate was initially sparked in 1935 when a paleontologist named G. H. von Koenigswald found an old, yellow molar in a Hong Kong apothecary shop. Sold as "dragon bones," the fossil bones are traditionally believed to possess curative powers.
Few other fossil remains had been found in the years since, until Rink's bushwacking adventures led him to the caves in southern China. Rink used an advanced dating method called electron spin resonance, pioneered at McMaster University, to precisely determine the fossils' age.
The giant ape, who weighed as much as 1,200 pounds, was a plant eater, subsisting mainly on bamboo. This limited diet may have led to the ultimate extinction of Gigantopithecus, who had to compete for forest resources with humans and other animals.
Were humans responsible for the extinction of the primate? "We have absolutely no evidence of that," said Rink, who added that humans used bamboo only in limited amounts and may not have hunted the ape as a food source.
A Possible Source of the Bigfoot Legend
Since the discovery of Gigantopithecus fossils, some observers have noticed that the primate resembles the giant ape-like humans of worldwide legend -- Bigfoot, the "abominable snowman," Sasquatch or the yeti.
Is Gigantopithecus the source of these legends?
"I can't disagree with that statement," said Rink, who cautioned that the stories come from various regions and climate zones from around the world.
The primate's territory would have been limited by his food source, Rink noted, and the species might not have ventured far from bamboo forests.
"It's unlikely that Gigantopithecus would have adapted to a cold, snowy climate," Rink said.