I loved reading Tintin as a kid (as well as an adult) but there was one title in particular that has always been my favourite, which is ‘Tintin in Tibet’. There’s several reasons for that choice, including it being a story on a more personal scale for Tintin: he just wants to find his friend Chang and it has nothing to do with drug smuggling or fighting an international crime syndicate for once. It also features Tibetan Buddhism which has always interested me as well as plenty of mountains and snow which I love as a backdrop. It’s also a little about possibly the loneliest creature in the world, the Yeti. I don’t think I have to talk a lot about the abominable snowman, as it’s one of the best known cryptids in the world. What I do want to discuss is his possible origin, a topic I have talked about a bit already in last week’s post which was a product from when I was trying to write this particular post. But I got a bit… carried away, so that turned into a piece of its own. As for the actual Yeti in the Himalayas, it’s possible that the big furry thing people thought they saw walking around in their stories was just a prehistoric bear, based on genetic studies done on hair samples they found in the mountains. However, there has been a giant ape running around in China, India and Vietnam which also might have contributed to the local legends of yetis, a hominid called Gigantopithecus.
Gigantopithecus possibly lived as long as from nine million to a just few hundred years ago. In that genus, three species have been recognized with G. blacki being the most important one, the other two have an even worse fossil record and so not much is known about them. Gigantopithecus blacki was supposed to be up to three meters tall and weighed up to 540 kilograms, making them the largest apes which ever lived. No leg or pelvic bones have ever been found, so we’re not actually sure on how it walked, but is commonly thought to be on all fours, given its massive frame. It was a vegetarian, eating a lot of fibrous food, seeds, fruit and bamboo, something scientists can deduct from wear on the teeth. Actually, fossil teeth and mandibles are the only thing we do have of the giant ape. It’s thought that Gigantopithecus got extinct when climate change changed the habitat of the ape from forest to savanna. This meant that fruits disappeared to make way for grass, roots and leaves, something that the Gigantopithecus did not eat. And so with its forest, the ape starved and disappeared.
The story of the discovery of Gigantopithecus is a bit of a peculiar one. In 1935, an anthropologist named Ralph van Koenigswald was visiting an apothecary shop. Traditional Chinese medicine often uses grounded teeth and bone in their powers, and there von Koenigswald found a molar that looked incredibly odd. It was much bigger than he’d ever seen, and was sure it belonged to a species of ape that thus far hadn’t been discovered yet, calling it Gigantopithecus. Since then, not many more fossils of this new species have been found, usually limited to some more molars in Chinese medicine shops and their suppliers, but in a particular cave in Liuzhou, China plenty more were found. The latter also contained several jawbones. Later on, more of the same fossils have been found in Vietnam and India, extending the range in which Gigantopithecus lived for quite a bit. Some of the caves were nothing more than small fissures, too small for such an ape to live in, so it’s thought that the teeth and mandibles were brought there by porcupines who like to chew on bones. This is possibly also why we don’t find any other bones which would be too big for a porcupine to carry with it.
Gigantopithecus is just another example on how myths and cryptids can have a core of truth. The yeti might not be real, might not even have anything to do with Gigantopithecus, but the big ape was a real thing. It just took a bit of imagination to see it still alive and walking about in places it’s actually never been, not only in Asia but everywhere else in the world. It even appears in the newest “Jungle Book” voiced by Christopher Walken. In the song King Louie sings, he calls himself a Gigantopithecus but still looks very much like an orangutan. We don’t know how the ape looked like exactly, but many depictions of Gigantopithecus are actually somewhat reminiscent of an orangutan as it is thought to be its closest living relative. And while the orangutan never lived there, Gigantopithecus was actually, probably, native to India. Good job, Jon Favreau, you didn’t drop the ball there like Disney did the first time.
This blog was brought to you by: Christopher Walken – I Wanna Be Like You