An immense prehistoric primate that once roamed southern China was first discovered in 1935 after a scientist found a jaw bone in a traditional medicine shop in Hong Kong, where they were sold as “dragon teeth.”
Scientists have estimated that the extinct ape, known as Gigantopithecus blacki, stood almost 10 foot high (3 meters) and was twice the weight of gorilla, but no complete skull or any other bone from the rest of the skeleton has been found, leading to a lot of speculation.
“It’s an enigmatic species,” said Enrico Cappellini, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Science.
“There were different hypothesis about what could be the closest living organism.”
Now, genetic information extracted from a 1.9-million-year-old tooth belonging to the ape by Cappellini and his colleagues has revealed that the orangutan is its closest living relative.
“The genetic material settles the debate. Genetically, it looks like a orangutan,” he said.
The team of scientists used protein sequencing on enamel from the molar, which was found in a cave in southern China, uncovering the evolutionary relationship with the living orangutan. Their findings were published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
Real King Kong?
The only evidence the unusually large ape, which went extinct 300,000 years ago, existed are four jaw bone fragments and several thousand teeth.
However, the primate, sometimes dubbed the real King Kong, has made an impression on Hollywood, with a cameo in the 2016 remake of Jungle Book as the inspiration for King Louie.
Cappellini cautioned that the study’s findings didn’t mean the Gigantopithecus would necessarily look like an orangutan.
“The information we have does not provide any further knowledge in terms of physiology, biology and appearance of the animal,” he said.
Understanding human origins
The new technique used by the scientists, known as palaeoproteomics, could also be used to clarify the evolutionary history hidden in fossils too old to conserve DNA, and help revolutionize our understanding of human history.
The authors said that genetic material preserved in fossils has allowed us to reconstruct the last 50,000 years of evolution but the oldest human fossil remains date back 400,000 years, leaving a void in our evolutionary history.
It is also the first time genetic material this old has been retrieved from a fossil in a subtropical area, where hot and humid conditions mean genetic material decays much quicker.
“Until now, it has only been possible to retrieve genetic information from up to 10,000-year-old fossils in warm, humid areas,” said Frido Welker, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and first author of the study.
“This is interesting, because ancient remains of the supposed ancestors of our species, Homo sapiens, are also mainly found in subtropical areas, particularly for the early part of human evolution. This means that we can potentially retrieve similar information on the evolutionary line leading to humans.”