It’s time to say goodbye to someone who has been a big friend to our visitors since 2003. A big, BIG friend.
In preparation for extending our Race exhibit down the western side of our second floor in the rotunda, we’re taking our Gigantopithecus off exhibit in the spring of 2016. Other pieces of what we call “Primate Hall” will also be taken off display.
Gigantopithecus (a name that comes to us through Modern Latin from Greek root words gigas or gigant, meaning “giant,” and pithēkos, meaning “ape”) is the largest known primate. It lived between nine million and 400,000 years ago in what is now India, China, and Vietnam. In China, its remains have been found along with those of Homo erectus.
This particular dude, called “Mr. G” by some staff in his early days, was reconstructed based upon a nearly complete lower jaw of Gigantopithecus blacki (his full scientific name) found in China in 1935 by Ralph von Koenigswald. He discovered it and other fossils in drugstores labeled as “dragon’s teeth,” which were used for medicine.
Teeth and lower jaws are all that have been found of Gigantopithecus, but they tell us a lot. The wear pattern on the teeth (confirmed by the nature of the carbon found in the fossils) suggests it ate bamboo and fruit. Judging from the size of its jaws, a male Gigantopithecus was about 10 feet (3 meters) tall and 1200 pounds (544 kg), nearly twice the size of a modern male gorilla. It may have been related to orangutans. This particular jaw bone dates from between one million to 400,000 years ago.
Our Gigantopithecus was built during two months by George York, a forensic reconstructionist who also does special effects with his company Yoha Technologies, known as YFX Studios at the time he did the work. The creature is eight feet tall but only weighs about 100 pounds. He has horsehair whiskers.
Once the Museum staff knew they wanted a model of Mr. G to add to the $3 million exhibit called Footsteps through Time, which opened in 2002, George went to Steven Byers, a well-known anthropologist, who had done his master’s thesis on Gigantopithecus in the 1970s. George asked him if he could do the math to figure out the dimensions of the creature’s skull based upon the intact lower jaw. Byers also did an analysis on the teeth and molars, including the way they were ground down. You can see a different reconstruction of the skull here.
“I took that data and applied it to recreating the musculature and the skin and everything else,” George said. “From that skull we were able to estimate the size and shape of his body. We did several iterations of what we wanted it to look like — in color, with how the hair looks.”
Once the Museum and George agreed on a sketch, he started construction. A steel structure is covered with epoxy and foam, including recreated muscle fascia and skin, and fatty deposits. You can see George York installing Mr. G’s arm here, in a way that shows the foam interior of his arm.
“I’m sure it’s close to what it actually looked like. It is all just conjecture but the reconstruction process was done scientifically.”
Although Mr. G is posed standing in our museum, actual Gigantopithecus probably walked on his fists like today’s orangutans do.
One of the special features of Mr. G was that he was built with an infrared sensor so that any time someone came near, his eyes and eyelids would move. Although that particular feature no longer works, you can see it in this short video that George posted.
By the way, Mr. G wasn’t the first Gigantopithecus model we put on display. This other handsome fellow, shown at right getting his glamour shot taken at the San Diego Zoo, was built by special effects artist Bill Munns and shown in the Museum for a short time in 1989.
- The Largest Ape That Ever Lived Was Doomed By Its Size. National Geographic
- Did Bigfoot Really Exist? How Gigantopithecus Became Extinct. Smithsonian.com