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King Kong, Gigantopithecus & the Missing Link

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Author Topic: King Kong, Gigantopithecus & the Missing Link  (Read 2515 times)
Kristin Moore
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« Reply #15 on: May 27, 2011, 02:55:41 am »

Asian fossils reveal humanity's giant cousin


by Russell L. Ciochon

        For thousands of years, Chinese pharmacists have used fossils - which they call dragon teeth and dragon bones - as ingredients in potions intended to cure ailments ranging from backache to sexual impotence. The fossil-rich caves of southern China have been, and still are, sedulously mined by farmers, who sell these medicinal treasures to apothecaries in the cities. In just such a pharmacy, in Hong Kong in 1935, the German paleoanthropologist Ralph von Koenigswald came across a large fossil primate molar that did not belong to any known species. Over the next four years he searched further in Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) and found three more of the oversize teeth, thereby establishing the existence of an extinct ape, the largest primate ever to roam the earth. He named the genus Gigantopithecus, meaning "gigantic ape," and the species blacki, in honor of his late friend and colleague Davidson Black.
        At the time of the discovery, during the 1930s, von Koenigswald was working primarily in Java, unearthing fossils of human ancestors and their relatives. China's unique fossil shops had already played a major role in tracking down Homo erectus, which lived in Asia between about one million and 300,000 years ago. Homo erectus remains were first unearthed in Java in the 1890s, but pursuit of the source of dragon bones subsequently led to a system of fossil-filled crevices and caverns near the town of Zhoukoudian (Choukoutien), thirty miles from Beijing. There, in 1929, a team of Chinese and Western scientists discovered the first of a series of Homo erectus skulls that became world famous as "Peking man."
        The original fossils of Peking man disappeared during the confusion of World War II - fortunately, after they were described and cast by anatomist Franz Weidenreich. The war also caught up with von Koenigswald, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Java. His precious collection of Gigantopithecus teeth - at that point, the only known specimens of the fossil ape - spent the war years in a milk bottle buried in a friend's backyard on the island.

Photographed at the American Museum in the 1940's, German paleoanthropologists Ralph von Koenigswald, left, and Franz Weidenreich, right, pose with the skulls of apes, Homo erectus, and modern humans. The first scientist to discover teeth of Gigantopithecus, von Koenigswald correctly observed that they belonged to an ape, while Weidenreich argued for their humanlike characteristics.
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