Key to early humans found in giant ape’s tooth

Walk on the wild side: An artist’s impression of Gigantopithecus blacki. © Ikumi Kayama

Could this teach us who we really are? A scientific breakthrough has allowed researchers to read genetic data, effectively 12 million years old — shining a light on the origins of man.

In 1935, anthropologist Gustav von Koenigswald found a strange set of teeth in a traditional medicine store in Hong Kong.

The specimens were being sold as “dragon teeth” but when he examined them, von Koenigswald was puzzled to find that they looked exactly like the teeth of a great ape — but impossibly huge.

Gigantopithecus blacki was an ancient ape — a “King Kong” — that went extinct around 300,000 years ago. At 10-feet-tall and weighing twice as much as a gorilla, G. blacki would tower over the tallest-ever human by almost half a metre.

But, without a complete skull to study, researchers were mystified for over 80 years as to what family of ape this giant might have belonged to.

Until now. A new technique has allowed scientists to extract genetic clues from the 1.9-million-year-old tooth. We now conclusively know that the giant ape most closely resembled an orangutan, sporting a flat, round face and thick, reddish hair.

Tooth enamel is incredibly robust, containing minerals that keep water out and drastically slow down decomposition.

However, after spending millions of years in hot, humid regions where organic matter breaks down faster, the thermal age of the tooth was closer to 12 million years than two million. This is about five times the thermal age of any other skeletal proteins sequenced to date.

Many of the most exciting, enigmatic human fossils ever found have a thermal age of around 12 million years, after spending many millennia in hot African climes. Now, for the first time, researchers can hope to use these prehistoric remnants to discover the traits and habits of our earliest ancestors.

“This brings us closer to thinking it could be feasible to investigate hominins from Africa. It’s at least possible,” said Enrico Cappellini, a professor from the University of Copenhagen who led the research.

There is much to learn: the lives of our ancient ancestors are shrouded in mystery. We still don’t know when the first modern humans evolved and where they lived.

Some scientists argue that humans originated in one region of Africa and spread outwards (the “Out of Africa” theory). But others think that modern humans are descended from several groups of early human that interbred inside and outside Africa (the multiregional theory).

Is this the key to understanding who we really are?

I wanna be like you-oo-oo

Yes, say some. Thanks to this breakthrough, we can reach back five times further into the past than we previously thought possible. It has opened up a whole catalogue of fossils, which contain detailed DNA profiles for exploration. At last, we are on the verge of meeting our earliest parents eye-to-eye.

We will never know the truth, argue others. As soon as we grasp onto one piece of firm evidence, 10 other pieces crop up to contradict it. Trying to pin it down using a few fossils is like trying to reconstruct a massive fresco from just a few tiny scraps. Our earliest parents will always be shrouded in the mists of time.

You Decide

  1. Even if it isn’t scientifically true, does the Bible story of Adam and Eve still have value?
  2. What is the point in trying to learn about the very distant past?

Activities

  1. Draw an average modern human, an orangutan and Gigantopithecus blacki to scale.
  2. Write a one-page short story through the eyes of one of the first ancient humans on Earth.

Some People Say...

“Scientific knowledge is in perpetual evolution; it finds itself changed from one day to the next.”

Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Swiss psychologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Gigantopithecus blacki, which lived from around two million to 300,000 years ago, was about 10-foot tall (three metres). Its closest living relative is the orangutan, which grows to roughly 1.4 metres in height. The two family trees probably split off from each other between 10 and 12 million years ago.
What do we not know?
Exactly where the earliest modern humans lived, and how they came to be. In 2010, scientists sequencing the Neanderthal genome (a separate species of prehistoric human) discovered traces in our modern DNA. The same happened in 2012, when they sequenced DNA belonging to Denisovans, another distinct species of human. This supports the theory that the earliest Homo Sapiens interbred with different human species.

Word Watch

Half a metre
The tallest-ever man, Robert Pershing Wadlow, was 2.7 metres tall. He died in 1940.
Orangutan
The species is found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutans are critically endangered, mostly due to habitat destruction by humans.
Organic matter
Any kind of carbon-based matter than is capable of decaying, from plants to flesh and bones.
Thermal age
A way of measuring the condition of a fossil or specimen, based on the temperature they have been kept at.
Enigmatic
Mysterious; difficult to interpret.
Hominins
A primate closely related to humans.
Fresco
A watercolour image painted onto a wall or ceiling. The most famous example is found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

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