Although a re-make of the Hollywood classic "King Kong" may turn out to be the hit of the current movie season, a University of Iowa's study of real-life giant apes may be a television hit when it airs at 8 p.m. tonight, Dec. 15, on the History Channel.
Called "Giganto: the Real King Kong," the documentary describes how researchers have determined that an ancient giant ape - which might have been the closest thing to a real King Kong - lived at the same time and in roughly the same place as early humans. Due to the release of the movie, the public will likely also be interested in Gigantopithecus (Giganto for short), a huge ape that became extinct more than 200,000 years ago, says Russell L. Ciochon, anthropology professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Ciochon says of the relationship between the documentary and the movie in the Dec. 9, 2005 issue of Science magazine: "We're riding on the coattails."
But Giganto is interesting in its own right. The male was more than twice the size of the largest known gorilla, about nine feet tall when standing on its hind legs and about half a ton in weight. "Clearly it was dramatically bigger than a gorilla. But, like a gorilla, it presumably walked on all fours," Ciochon says in the Dec. 8 issue of National Geographic News.
Giganto was first identified in 1935 when a German paleontologist found a large tooth, referred to as a "dragon's tooth," in a Chinese apothecary shop. Scientists reconstructed the ape from three lower jaws and more than 1,000 teeth found at 10 cave sites. They assumed that the skull would have been scaled according to the dimensions of living apes, and that the body would have been about 6.5 times the height of the skull. The giant apes lived in the jungles of southern China and northern Vietnam during the Pleistocene epoch, from about 2 million to 300,000 years ago, says Ciochon. Also, 7 or 8 million-year-old fossils have been found in modern-day India and Pakistan.
The documentary offers views of cave sites in China, Jurassic Park-style animations of the animal and a high-tech analysis of Giganto's teeth.
Ciochon, who has spent 18 years collecting Giganto remains, says that much of the interest in the documentary and in the real-life quest to understand Giganto lies in the fact that so much remains to be discovered.
"I am currently working on a joint project with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. We have taken the original teeth to analyze them for enamel and dentine thickness, which will tell us the evolutionary position of Giganto in the primate family tree. We will use a high tech micro CT scanning machine to look inside the teeth of Giganto - something that no one has ever done before," says Ciochon, who has been invited back to China to look at new cave sites.