Scientists have estimated that the extinct monkey, known as Gigantopithecus blacki, stopped nearly 10 feet (3 meters) high and was twice as heavy as a gorilla, but no full skull or any other bone from the rest of the skeleton was found, leading to much speculation.
"It's an enigmatic species," said Enrico Capellini, an associate professor at the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen at the Faculty of Health and Medical Science.
"There were different hypotheses about what could be the closest living organism."
Now, genetic information extracted from the 1.9 million year old tooth belonging to the monkey by Capellini and his colleagues has revealed that the orangutan is his closest living relative.
"Genetic material resolves the debate. Genetically, it looks like an orangutan, "he said.
The team used the sequencing of a molar enamel protein found in a cave in southern China, revealing the evolutionary relationship with live orangutan. Their findings were published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
Real King Kong?
The only evidence of the unusually large ape, which disappeared 300,000 years ago, are four fragments of jaw bones and several thousand teeth.
Capelin warned that the findings of the study did not mean that Gigantopithecus would necessarily look like orangutan.
"The information we have does not provide additional knowledge about the physiology, biology and appearance of the animal," he said.
Understanding human origin
The new technique used by scientists, known as paleoproteomics, can also be used to clarify the evolutionary history hidden in fossils too old to preserve DNA and help revolutionize understanding of human history.
The authors say genetic material stored in fossils has allowed us to reconstruct the last 50,000 years of evolution, but the oldest human fossil remains dating back 400,000 years, leaving a void in our evolutionary history.
It is also the first time this old genetic material has been extracted from fossils in a subtropical area, where warm and humid conditions mean the genetic material decays much faster.
"Until now, it is only possible to get genetic information from 10,000 years old fossils in warm wet areas," said Frido Velker, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen's Globe Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and the first author of the study.
"This is interesting, because the ancient remains of our supposed ancestors of our species, Homo sapiens, are also found mainly in subtropical areas, especially in the early part of human evolution. This means that potentially we can obtain similar information about the leading evolutionary line. to the people. "