For decades, the legend of Bigfoot has fascinated people around the globe. Is the massive 10-foot-tall ape-like creature with shaggy hair a human relative or a missing link in the evolutionary chain? Despite the lack of concrete evidence, both cryptozoologists and anthropologists continue to search for answers.
Bigfoot has been part of our collective history since its existence was first alluded to in a 1958 local column in the Humboldt Times. Although other giant ape-like creatures were already part of the folklore around the world (like the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) by then, journalist Andrew Genzoli brought the beast home when he recounted the story of a road construction crew that had run into huge humanoid “16-inch tracks in the vicinity of Bluff Creek.”
Genzoli had written the story almost as an afterthought (when he couldn’t come up with enough words for his column), but it immediately hit a cord across the nation. Soon, everybody was calling the creature behind the giant footprints “Bigfoot” — and what started as a casual story soon became the stuff of legends. Today, thousands of aficionados search for Bigfoot regularly in the forests of North America. There’s even a Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which documents sights around the country and engages in “projects, including field and laboratory investigations” to study the Bigfoot phenomenon.
Could Bigfoot Be Real?
Did a massive ape creature walk the Earth in our long-lost past?
Long before we ever heard of a mythological ape roaming North America, a very real, Bigfoot-like animal called the forests of South Asia home.
Meet Gigantopithecus, an ape that went extinct about 300,000 years ago. Scientists didn’t even know of its existence until 1935, when a German paleoanthropologist stumbled on a huge molar at – of all places – a traditional Chinese pharmacy in Hong Kong.
Once researchers learned about Gigantopithecus and started actively searching for fossils, more teeth and jaws turned up in China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Gigantopithecus was once described as the “largest hominoid (a subfamily that also includes humans) that ever lived” but has more recently been reclassified as a close relative of the extinct Sivapithecus ape and modern-day orangutans.
No Gigantopithecus bones have ever been found, so scientists can only speculate as to what the giant ape looked like. The best guess is that it was at least 10 feet tall and possibly weighed as much as 1,200 pounds. As a comparison, the largest modern-day ape (the gorilla) weighs “only” 400 pounds.
How Being a Vegetarian Didn’t Pay Off For Gigantopithecus
Gigantopithecus likely inhabited the Earth for over 1.5 million years, eventually disappearing about 300,000 years ago. While scientists don’t know much about the giant ape, they do know one thing (almost) for sure — they were vegetarians.
It’s obvious from the teeth and jaws found that Gigantopithecus’ diet consisted mainly of “tough, fibrous plants,” fruits, seeds, and bamboo. This sugar-rich diet — which not only wore down the teeth but also caused cavities — is likely what eventually led to Gigantopithecus’ extinction. This is because bamboo has been known to go through periods of poorly explained “mass die-offs.” And when you’re a giant ape with a giant appetite and your main source of food suddenly disappears, your chances for survival just aren’t that good.
In 2013, a team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences speculated that climate change, low birth rates, and the appearance of Homo erectus encroaching in its territory could have also played a role in the extinction.
Is That Where the Legend of Bigfoot Comes From?
While modern humans didn’t share the planet with Gigantopithecus, we know our ancestors did. Could they have left behind some clues of the existence of a giant ape-like creature? And if a giant ape once roamed the world, is it really impossible for one to still exist today?
Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest have passed down stories about the Sasquatch for generations. During a podcast interview, journalist Laura Krantz explained that many Native American stories talk about experiencing, smelling and hearing Sasquatch, and that there are curious petroglyphs in Oregon of something that resembles a giant ape. “There’s carvings in the rocks that look and say it’s Bigfoot,” Krantz explains during the interview. Or, perhaps, an even older memory of another giant ape that once roamed the same area.
If Bigfoot Exists, How Come We Can’t Find It?
Have you ever wondered, when hiking in the wilderness, why aren’t forests littered with animal bones? Forests, mountains, and valleys are rich in animal life, but it’s still incredibly rare to run into carcasses while leisurely strolling around (that would certainly kill our love of hiking!). Scientists point out that this is because animal bones aren’t always easy to find.
Gigantopithecus is a good example. Despite its giant size, researchers haven’t, so far, been able to find anything except teeth and partial jaws.
This is in part because environments such as rainforests, where Gigantopithecus lived, are living, always- changing organisms. Carcasses decay quickly or are eaten by other animals in the rainforest, and large predators can easily grab bones and carry them away or destroy them.
Anything left to rest on the ground would eventually be covered by nature, buried under soil or roots, or become part of the food chain. It’s very possible bones of Gigantopithecus could still be found in the thick rainforests of Asia, but when dealing with an ever-growing environment, searching for them could take centuries.
Scientists believe this is likely the case for Gigantopithecus. Because DNA degrades quickly in warm, humid regions of the world, even if fossils were found, it might be impossible to confirm their origin.
Meet Gigantopithecus’ Cousin, the Gentle Orangutan
So if there are no bones, how do scientists know Gigantopithecus and modern-day orangutans are related?
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences were able to extract a protein sequence from Gigantopithecus’ teeth and compared it to the one found in orangutans today. The result? You guessed it — Gigantopithecus is not a close human relative, but they quite resembled modern orangutans.
By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com