Think ‘King Kong’ only existed in the movies. Well, think again.

The first King Kong film was released in 1933. A reworked version of Beauty and the Beast, it became a special effects and animation classic. Nature columnist Richard Collins reminds us, however, that the King Kong of the big screen is very much rooted in a species of giant ape that may have walked the earth as recently as 100,000 years ago.   

The film's giant ape was no doubt based and inspired by the hairy half-hominid bigfoot, who was said to inhabit the forests of the Pacific north-west.

Believers claim that bigfoot's ancestors crossed from Asia to north America, when the continents were joined at the shoulder near what is now the Bering Strait.

Alas, there is no such thing as bigfoot. No data other than material that’s clearly been fabricated have ever been presented’ declared Washington State zoologist John Crane.

But in 1935, while King Kong was terrifying audiences worldwide, anthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald found some fossilised bones and teeth in a traditional Chinese medicine shop. They belonged to an ape-like creature but the enormous molars were not those of any known primate.

He named their owner ‘Gigantopithecus’, from the Greek ‘gigas’, a ‘giant’, and ‘pithekos’, an ‘ape’. King Kong, apparently, was not an entirely fictional character; he had actually existed.

Since Koenigswald’s day, more teeth and bones have come to light in south-east Asia, where they are ground to powder and sold by traditional healers.

Research has confirmed that Gigantopithecus was indeed a member of the great ape family, the one to which we ourselves belong.

There were at least three species, some of whose members were 3m tall and weighed more than a quarter of a tonne. Their arms could span almost 4m. Though not nearly as big as the one seen climbing the Empire State building to rescue the heroine in ‘the greatest horror film of all time’, the great ape must have been an impressive sight.

Whether he moved on all fours, or was bipedal, isn’t known but walking upright, it’s been suggested, may have placed excessive stress on knees and ankles.

Despite his fearsome appearance, Gigantopithecus was probably as docile a creature as his surviving relatives, the gorilla and orang-utan, are today. The teeth and jaws are those of a plant eater.

However, why did the big ape become extinct when those other large Asian herbivores, the rhinos and elephants, survived? Primates have huge brains; surely the great ape had the ingenuity to save himself? The question has intrigued scientists.

Now, Hervé Bocherens and colleagues at the University of Tubingen think they have the answer. In an article in Live Science, they claim that Gigantopithecus perished when the climate changed 100,000 years ago. He had become too big for his boots.

Isotopes of carbon are formed when cosmic rays bombard the upper atmosphere. During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Grasses take in more of the carbon-13 isotope than do the leaves of trees.

This isotope doesn’t decay with time. The amounts of it present in their tooth enamel, compared to the ubiquitous carbon-12, indicate that the ancient apes were forest dwellers eating leaves rather than grasses.

Nor did they survive on bamboo as giant pandas do today. The isotope ratios found in the teeth of other animals of their time, show that the habitat back then had both forests and open grasslands.

When the climate became cooler and dryer, the forests shrank. The apes, it seems, failed to make the transition from leaf to grass feeding. They had over-stretched themselves; there was insufficient foot to sustain them.

Like those of the giant Irish deer the mastodons and mammoths, which would go to the wall thousands of years later, the lifestyle of the huge primates was no longer viable. They had fallen victim to their grandiose tendencies.

Orang-utans, distant relatives of the giant apes, faced a similar challenge. They too were restricted to a single habitat type but managed to survive adverse climate changes because they had slower metabolism and lower food demands.

  • H Bocherens et al. ‘Flexibility of diet and habitat in Pleistocene South Asian mammals: implications for the fate of Gigantopithecus’. Quaternary International. December, 2015.

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