Sometime in the early nineteen thirties, a paleontologist purchased a strange-looking molar tooth from a Chinese drug store in Hong Kong. The tooth was the first specimen of what researchers think may be the largest ape that ever lived, Gigantopithecus. Other remains of this prehistoric ape species have since been found in caves across southern China.
These fossils include parts of four jaw bones, and almost two thousand teeth. From these fossils and the anatomy of modern apes, paleontologists deduced that Gigantopithecus was much larger than a gorilla. It’s possible it might have weighed as much as half a ton and stood almost ten feet tall. They also learned that Gigantopithecus lived between two million and three hundred thousand years ago. They could learn more if the fossils contained a sample of Gigantopithecus’s DNA. With this, geneticists could work out which modern apes were its evolutionary relatives. But, DNA doesn’t last long in the hot, humid climate of southern China, and none has been found.
In 2019 an international team of geneticists published a study in which they used a new technique to determine which modern apes are Gigantopithecus’s relatives. Instead of DNA, the researchers analyzed the durable proteins in Gigantopithecus’s tooth enamel. Like DNA, these proteins vary from species to species in a way that provides clues about evolutionary relatives.
The researchers discovered that Gigantopithecus is most closely related to the orangutan, an ape which lives in the rainforests of modern Indonesia and Malaysia. They hope to use their new technique on other tooth fossils, and add to our knowledge of how great apes and humans evolved.