Unravelling the mystery of the mighty ape’s last stand

Anthropology Professor Russell Ciochon and colleagues receive major grant from Australian Research Council
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Russ Ciochon
Ciochon with G. blacki  jawbone

Whatever became of Gigantopithecus blacki? And what can the demise of the biggest primate ever to have lived—at nine feet tall, it is possibly the origin of legends such as the yeti and sasquatch—tell us about human adaptation and survival in the face of environmental change?

University of Iowa Professor of Anthropology Russell Ciochon and colleagues from Australia and China have received a crucial grant to study just these questions. The grant of $203,000, or 262,000 Australian dollars, from the Australian Research Council will enable Ciochon and his colleagues to conduct extensive field work in Guangxi, China. The Australian Research Council is the equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

G. blacki with human
G. blacki compared with human

The influence of environmental change on animal populations is a pressing issue for environmentally sensitive areas. This study will address the issue by documenting how ancient animals (and humans) in Southern Asia responded to environmental challenges such as climate change and habitat deterioration, in a region where data on mass animal extinction are scarce. The study will apply multiple dating techniques across key sites to identify a precise extinction window for G. blacki, which occupied southern Asia at the same time that our ancestors Homo erectus occupied Java, becoming extinct in just the last 400,000 years. The work will enable a focused comparison of behavior and environmental conditions to determine why the ape failed and man persevered.

Ciochon's colleagues in the three-year study are Kira Westaway of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia; Simon Haberle of the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia; and Yingqi Zhang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China.

Story by Nic Arp

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.