Reconstructing the Gigantopithecus skull
In 1935, a young palaeontologist named Ralph von Koensigswald made an astonishing discovery while amusing himself sifting through ‘dragon’s teeth’ in an apothecary’s shop in Hong Kong. This was the term used to describe old animal bones that were used in Chinese traditional medicines. The young scientist amused himself by trying to link the bone fragments to identifiable animals, extant or extinct. One day, he stumbled on a molar tooth, which bore some striking resemblance to a human tooth – except that it was huge.
So began the story of a truly fantastic beast, which has been the subject of unanswered questions and controversy since von Koenigswald’s discovery. Its name: Gigantopithecus – standing, according to some estimates, 3.5 metres tall and weighing more than 500kg.
Today, we have thousands of individual teeth and four lower jaw fragments – but no postcranial remains, such as leg or hip bones, to give us clues as to what Gigantopithecus might have looked like or how it moved.
The late Dr Grover Krantz, Professor of Physical Anthropology at Washington State University, who died in 2002, reconstructed the Gigantopithecus skull from the largest known mandible fragment.
Cast of the largest Gigantopithecus mandible
Dr Grover Krantz and his Gigantopithecus skull reconstruction
Not one to shy away from controversy, Dr Krantz hypothesised that Gigantopithecus, the ‘giant ape’, was bipedal, walking upright like humans. Krantz argued that the Gigantopithecus mandible splayed more like a human lower jaw, allowing the foramen magnum (the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal chord passes) to sit directly below the skull, as in upright-walking, bipedal humans. Ape mandibles are typically narrow and ‘parallel’ and the foramen magnum is sited at the back of the skull, indicative of quadrupedal locomotion, as in the case of gorillas and chimpanzees.
But Dr Krantz did not leave things there. He went on to suggest that the fabled Sasquatch (the Bigfoot) was a relict form of Gigantopithecus that had survived extinction and migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Land Bridge, at a time when sea levels had fallen and Asia and America formed one land mass. This was, to put it mildly, a controversial theory. Most scientists consider that Gigantopithecus became extinct around 320,000 years ago. The species would have had to survive until the Pleistocene Epoch 15,000 – 30,000 years ago, when sea levels would have permitted the Bering Land bridge migration from Asia to America. No ape fossils have been found in America.
An absence in the fossil record is not necessarily definitive evidence of non-existence – but fossil evidence is invariably all that scientists have to go on. Today, most scientists consider Gigantopithecus extinct, a huge, quadrupedal ground-dwelling ape from Asia, an ancestor to the orangutan.
Dr Krantz stuck to his guns in the face of criticism and ridicule, despite the risk to his academic reputation. He wrote a thoughtful, meticulously argued book: Big Foot-Prints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch (1992). And when Dr Krantz ruffled feathers, there were no half-measures. He even upset the conservation lobby by insisting that we needed to shoot a Sasquatch to provide the physical evidence – a dead body – that the scientific community would accept as proof of its existence.
During the 1990s, I took the bull by the horns and phoned Dr Krantz in America. To my great surprise, the University switchboard put me straight through to him. As a complete layman, with no scientific bona fides, I was extremely nervous at my own presumption, but Dr Krantz was ever patient and courteous. We had a long conversation (it was early hours of the morning UK time), which developed into an exchange of emails. At the time, Dr Krantz was just starting to produce casts of his Gigantopithecus skull reconstruction, and I persuaded him to sell me his display model, which was shipped to the UK in a very large packing crate. It arrived safely. The Gigantopithecus skull is huge, dwarfing the skull of an adult male gorilla, with a human skull tiny in comparison.
Human skull, skull of adult male gorilla, Gigantopithecus skull reconstruction
Dr Krantz died in 1992. But if you fancy owning his Gigantopithecus skull reconstruction, you can purchase one from Bone Clones, a company that acquired, from the Krantz estate, the rights to reproduce the skull in resin. At the time of writing, the purchase price is 390 USD. The Bone Clones version differs from Dr Krantz’s original in that it incorporates the Gigantopithecus mandible, from which Dr Krantz built his reconstruction, in a contrasting colour.
Around 2016 the Museum of Man in San Diego exhibited a full-size hypothetical reconstruction of Gigantopithecus. The head was built around a skull dummy that was clearly modelled on Dr Krantz’s reconstruction.
So what is one to make of the Gigantopithecus conundrum?
There is little doubt that Dr Krantz’s theories do not attract much support from the mainstream scientific community today. But it might be worth remembering that scientific certitude has been caught out many times in the past. One of the greatest scientists of all time, Baron Cuvier (1769 – 1832), sometimes referred to as the ‘founding father of paleontology’, expressed with certainty shortly before his death that no further large quadrupeds remained to be discovered. So he must be turning in his grave in view of the later discovery of Baird’s tapir, the giant panda, the okapi, the bonobo, not to mention the mountain gorilla, the very essence of myth – except that it turned out to be a real animal.
And the most famous and influential primatologist alive today, Dame Jane Goodall, is willing to consider the Sasquatch as a real creature. Interviewed by American radio journalist, Ira Flatow, she said:
‘Well now, you’ll be amazed, when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist. I’ve talked to so many Native Americans, who’ve all described the same sounds, two who’ve seen them.’
So, who knows for certain, maybe Gigantopithecus does roam the remote reaches of the Pacific Northwest of America today?
© Dr Richard Thomas
References Krantz, Grover S Big Footprints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch, Johnson Books, 1992. Second edition - revised and appended Krantz, Grover S Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence, Hancock House, 1999 Images Supplied by Dr. Richard Thomas