Gigantopithecus: reconstruction at (or near) its limit!
People often ask me, how much imagination do you need to put into your reconstructions? I always answer: “it depends”. It may sound like I am eluding the point, but it is just the plain truth! There is an inverse relationship between the completeness of the fossil record and the amount of imagination you need to put into a reconstruction. For instance, if you are going to reconstruct a woolly mammoth there is so much information available about its anatomy and life appearance (thanks not only to the rich fossil record and the frozen carcasses found at the permafrost, but also to the renderings in paleolithic art) that your imagination has a pretty small role to play regarding the way the animal looked. Of course there is always ample room for your creativity in terms of composition, style etc, but that is a different matter.
Near the other extreme of things is Gigantopithecus. These Miocene to Pleistocene apes from Asia are legendary both because of their massive size and becasue of the scarcity of their fossils. All that we have of them is a collection of teeth and mandibles, but the latter are truly massive, and they indicate that members of the Pleistocene species, Gigantopithecus blacki, may have weighted as much as 300 Kg!. Such partial fossils are not nearly enough to allow a confident reconstruction, and yet we are so fascinated by the idea of such a massive ape dwelling in the Asian forests, that we need at least to attempt a depiction!
First we reconstruct a hypothetical skull that at least fits the known geometry of the massive mandible. The morphology of Gigantopithecus‘ teeth and jaw has similarities with that of the giant panda, and suggests a diet based on tough, fibrous vegetal matter, such as bamboo, so we show the animals in a forest with plenty of bamboo to satisfy their gargantuan appetite!. We know that the sheer mass of this animal prevented it from spending much time in trees, so we show them on the ground, where most of their activity would take place. Since its teeth and jaws indicate that it was a relative of modern orangutans, we give it some of their external attributes, including a long reddish hair.
My reconstruction of Gigantopithecus is part of the collection of illustrations I prepared for the 3d edition of “Our Origins”. Check the book for an amazing wealth of information about primate and human evolution!