Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Meganthropus in popular culture

Dear Constant Readers,

Good lord my mind is scrambled right now, even more so than usual. The week that I've been off school I've pondered how to reason out the concept of uncertainty, how many branches of armored reptiles to have on Connor's Island, if I should make a faux field guide to the inhabitants of said island, an increasingly bizarre and complicated plot for the story involving the island, colossal arthropods and other gigantic non-cephalopod invertebrates, animal maximum sizes in general, that cat skull again and...mighty Meganthropus. I've been wanting to write about Meganthropus for a long time (see here) and I think it is time to finally sit down and finish this project. This article will serve as a primer for a pdf riddled monstrosity which looms in the near future.

So what the heck is Meganthropus? While the name is occasionally mentioned in Paleoanthropology books, the mentions in non-scientific texts are what I'm going to look at now. Going through every hit for "Meganthropus" on Google, there definitely seemed to be a large number of Young Earth Creationists writing on this subject, often using exactly the same information. I believe that one of the original propagators of this information (as it had the most) is this website here which covers anomalous archeology, Cryptozoology, and so forth in order to support religious beliefs. Riiiiight. Their main contention is that Meganthropus (along with the Sivapithecine ape Gigantopithecus) are in fact the same as the giants* mentioned in the Bible. The article starts off by boasting that science dismisses the idea of giant early humans due to the inadequacy of evolution to explain them...perhaps forgetting that Gigantopithecus, Meganthropus, and some robust Australopithecines (i.e. "Meganthropus africanus") were in fact initially described initially as giant hominids by scientists. These Creationist authors do not seem to pay attention to anatomical differences and either split something as a man (i.e. modern man) or an ape. I'd hate to say it, but I can't tell if this website is a parody or not. The reasonings are so incredibly baseless and clueless that I think YECs should be ashamed of material like this. I can tolerate religious beliefs, I cannot tolerate information this bad.

*The subject of the cultural ubiquity of giants is very interesting to me and I would like to cover it at a later date. As appealing as the romantic suggestion of some prehistoric memory of a larger early race is, perhaps it ties in with a human fascination of size...or a fear of something more powerful than them.

Parody or not, there are a lot of claims on the Internet regarding the size of Meganthropus that this site repeats. It states that:

There is no controversy about these facts; there was a race or group of people found in Australia called "meganthropus" by anthropologists. These people were of very large size--estimated between 7 to 12 feet tall, depending on what source you read.

Now hold on a minute there, NO controversy? Aside from our species, pinnipeds, bats, and rodents, there are no other placentals known from Australia. I have never seen a specific size estimated for Meganthropus by a worker, so I think that figure is somebody's personal estimate that got cited as fact. One of the most pathetic things I have ever seen on a Creationist website is this sorry little illustration demonstrating the difference in skull size between a human, chimpanzee, "Australopithecus" and "Meganthropus". Having the book "From Lucy to Language" with amazing life-sized pictures of skulls; it is apparent the "Australopithecus" skull is probably a Paranthropus robustus and the "Meganthropus" skull is a Paranthropus boisei. The P. robustus skull is small compared to a modern human and P. boisei is roughly the same size, due mostly to outrageous jaw musculature. The use of this picture either demonstrates extreme incompetence or outright fraud.

Instead of getting caught up with Creationism, I probably should have mentioned that claims for Meganthropus in Australia mostly seem to be from the (non-Creationist) Rex Gilroy. He is an unconventional researcher who, among many strange things, claims to have found gigantic fossil footprints, skulls , and various body parts including a...fossil...phallus....all in Australia! Nobody else is talking about his astonishing treasure trove of pygmies, H. erectus** and giants, so either the local scientists have a Vast Conspiracy Undermining The Noble Rogue Researcher or they have been misinterpreted. Looking at the pictures, they really do seem like strangely shaped rocks, but without better photos and better documentation, I can't definitely say anything. As opposed to his earlier works, he theorized that instead of actually having Meganthropus present on the continent, the "giants" are just parallels of them. That's pretty level headed in light of comments about 3 million year old H. erectus fossils from New Zealand and Australian apes.

**I should be careful here, as there has been some theorizing by Paleoanthropologists that H. erectus was in fact present in Australia. The Kow Swamp skull, also in the "From Lucy to Language" book is occasionally cited as evidence, but appears to be our species. Maybe potentially wayward erectines could make for another post.

Some of Gilroy's more interesting finds are the mega tools, which bring up a remarkably non-vulgar Google search. IIRC similarly oversized tools have been found elsewhere, but I'm not sure of their validity either. The mega tools do appear interesting and don't seems to be misshapen rocks, but a big tool does not always indicate a big tool user. What is more unreasonable, a colossal tool user or (pre-) human imagination?

Gilroy often brushes upon Cryptozoology, and indeed some in this field connect Meganthropus with Bigfoot and other mysterious hominids. Bernard Heuvelmans mentioned the fossil in "On the Track of Unknown Animals" and personally estimated a size of 2.40 to 3 meters tall (7'10" to 9'10") going from Von Koenigswald's observation that the teeth were 3/4 the size of Gigantopithecus's. Is this rather dubious estimate the basis for Internet size claims? Heuvelmans seems to connect Meganthropus with some reports of giants on Sumatra, but overall favors the ape Gigantopithecus. Heuvelmans may be vague on classification, but Mark A. Hall, Loren Coleman, and Patrick Huyghe all claim that there is a species of Paranthropus behind some sasquatch reports ("Neo-Giants") and use Meganthropus as supporting evidence of both size and the presence of the taxa closer to North America.

So you may be a bit confused about the associations between Meganthropus and both Homo erectus and Australopithecines. What is going on here? You're going to have to wait for a future post for what professional science has written on these incredible fossils.



Caitling said...

I haven't heard about Connor's Island in a while, how are things evolving?

Yes, what is Meganthropus? Whatever it is it must be rather large.

HA! These poor creationist, they seem to have a lot of fun being completely stupid.

I can just see their next movie " Jesus versus the Giants"...

Thanatomaton said...

I love s8int.com... it's entertaining, but it's unbelievable how terrible their sources are- 200-year-old hearsay, disproved theory, and an understanding of the concept of evolution that is positively medieval in its shortsightedness. Of particular note is the statement that megafauna have no place in the fossil record and that such animals are agreed, by actual scientists, to be inexplicable and worthy of a cover-up. That, and the statement that, as these animals are "anomalous", paleontologists don't discuss them very much as they have no frame of reference for their existence. Sigh.