Gigantopithecus: The Giant Extinct Orangutan 

Written by Brandi Allred
Published: September 22, 2022
© Sammy33/Shutterstock.com
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Today, in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, wild orangutans fight for survival against an ever increasing tide of deforestation and ecological devastation. But, hundreds of thousands of years ago, in a few parts of Asia, an even larger ape lived, and died. Gigantopithecus was the largest ape that ever lived; it would have dwarfed modern day orangutans. 

Gigantopithecus wasn’t discovered by science until the mid twentieth century. At that time, fossils of this extinct ape were known as ‘dragon teeth’. They were used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which often called for the ancient bones to be pulverized and consumed to treat various illnesses.

Read on to learn more about these fascinating ancient apes!       

Gigantopithecus: The Biggest Hominoid Ever

Prehistoric primate, Gigantopithecus
This is an artist’s rendering for a coloring book of Gigantopithecus.

©Sammy33/Shutterstock.com

Gigantopithecus blacki is the largest hominoid so far discovered. These incredible apes are cousins of orangutans, and are only distantly related to other hominoids, like humans, chimps, and gorillas. Unlike some extinct animals, which we know of from complete, or nearly complete, skeletal remains, we have only a few fossil remains of gigantopithecus. In fact, the only remaining trace of these giant apes is their teeth and jaw bones. This leaves scientists to extrapolate likely size, lifestyle, and appearance, from only a few bones.

Is Gigantopithecus the Biggest Ape?

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) - gorilla walking through forest
Gigantopithecus was even larger than the mountain gorilla

©Jurgen Vogt/Shutterstock.com

Gigantopithecus was larger than any ape living today, including the famous mountain gorilla. According to extrapolations based on their jaw size, these behemoths likely stood over nine feet tall, and weighed anywhere from 440-660 pounds. However, scientists believe that gigantopithecus had a high degree of sexual dimorphism, meaning females and males had very different sizes. They believe males were much larger than females. 

Unlike modern male gorillas, which have fearsome canine teeth meant for displaying dominance to other males, gigantopithecus had relatively small canine teeth. In fact, the canine teeth of both males and females were rather small. This leads some scientists to conclude that male gigantopithecus likely did not use their canines in dominance displays, as gorillas do.

Did Gigantopithecus Eat Meat?

Despite their great size, there is no evidence that gigantopithecus ate meat. Based on the size and shape of their teeth, scientists believe these ancient apes ate leaves, stems, fruit, and other tough, abrasive foods. In fact, over the course of their 1.7 million year sojourn on earth, gigantopithecus’ teeth grew progressively larger and more complex, right up until their extinction. There is no indication that these primordial hominoids ate meat, though it is possible they were opportunistically carnivorous, as today’s chimpanzees are. 

Did Gigantopithecus have any Predators?

Little is known about the behavior or life cycle of gigantopithecus. But, scientists do know that they lived in dense subtropical rainforests, similar to the rainforests chimpanzees and orangutans inhabit today. Because of their size, it’s likely that they lived a terrestrial life on the ground, rather than an arboreal one in the trees. Also based on their size, it’s unlikely that an adult gigantopithecus had much to worry about. They most likely lived in small groups, which would have given them additional protection from would-be predators. However, young gigantopithecus would still have been vulnerable to ancient carnivores.

Did Humans and Gigantopithecus Coexist?

Gigantopithecus
Gigantopithecus might have lived alonside some of our early ancestors

©Concavenator / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Though gigantopithecus are distantly related to modern humans (Homo sapiens) it is important to note that they are not our ancestors. Instead, they represent an evolutionary dead end on the human family tree (which looks more like a twiggy bush than a tree). Some scientists believe that gigantopithecus may have existed in the same time and place as Homo erectus, an early human ancestor. But, there is no direct evidence linking the two species. Further, there is currently no evidence that gigantopithecus ever met a Homo sapien—a modern human.

Where and When Did Gigantopithecus Live?

These monstrous primates lived from about two million years ago to about 300,000 years ago, during the Early and Middle Pleistocene. They spent their days foraging in the forests of what is now southern China. Recently, discoveries of possible gigantopithecus teeth in Thailand and northern Vietnam have forced scientists to rethink gigantopithecus’ range. 

If these fossils do indeed belong to the giant ape, then they had a broader geographic range than previously thought. And, if the teeth are from gigantopithecus, then they may have survived up to 100,000 years ago. But, the Thailand and Vietnam finds are not entirely accepted as gigantopithecus fossils by the scientific community.

Why Did Gigantopithecus Go Extinct?

The truth is that no one really knows why gigantopithecus went extinct. The most commonly cited reason is climate change. During the late Middle Pleistocene, a global cooling caused many irrevocable environmental changes. To gigantopithecus, these changes meant that their forest homes began to dwindle and, eventually, disappear. The inability to adapt quickly enough to a changing climate may have spelled this ancient hominoid’s doom.

However, cryptid (creatures that have never been proved to exist) enthusiasts frequently point to gigantopithecus as a potential source species for the Yeti. Also known as Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, these cryptological, blurrily photographed creatures are said to be gigantic, hairy apes. 

Indeed, they bear such a resemblance to depictions of gigantopithecus that cryptological communities (outside the scientific community) believe they might never have died out. Instead, they claim that a small population of gigantopithecus, or some other extinct primate, survived to modern times. According to enthusiasts, these species still thrive in the remotest forests of the world.

Modern Primates In Danger of Extinction

Animals with Opposable Thumbs-orangutan
Today’s orangutans are just one of the many species at trisk of extinction

©Alex East/Shutterstock.com

Ancient members of the primate family have long since gone extinct. But, for today’s extant species of primate, the threat is very real. As of 2021, 100% of all great ape species (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos) are at risk of going extinct in the near future. 

The situation isn’t much better for other types of primate. 96% of gibbons face extinction, and 71% of lemurs. On the island of Madagascar, rapid deforestation has led to 71% of the island’s lemurs being listed as Critically Endangered. But, all hope is not lost. With concerted conservation efforts, we can still save these incredible primates from the fate of gigantopithecus.

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The Featured Image

Prehistoric primate, Gigantopithecus
This is an artist's rendering for a coloring book of Gigantopithecus.
© Sammy33/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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Sources
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  2. , Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/Gigantopithecus
  3. , Available here: https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/51455202/2017_Zhang___Harrison-with-cover-page-v2.pdf?Expires=1663615446&Signature=EJwa0Q6MlH6QkG14jRiadKFo2whi20si57YArj~RnutS1UG3hNn0PufY0FMhsyo2BTjNJOfP-0AN2eYnLpmEA9kANM~kc~q2wyHLb1tGG-UaBob2A5lb15Q1TbOA2ZIIpJoWez8hHCiNfpOKDh~cmtAeIjKYUQZF7q2pFLxdTJq4c4563l2uB4B-~JHz3Y0JtomAX57UAelmoo2IGMdIKPKxj51hWFj2naWQsCvKrellCrmVJiAD6ZPqE2MS18fJG~8JUHhX692QnJVtfykjSw4-fWQnACfXDXXEuiyTrfLdIFqM3o2QOtxbUz6K4x0ttxLwS3MDVue5dkH1jaeHYw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA