Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Meganthropus At Last!

Dear Constant Readers,

Where I last left off you heard me talking about the occasional appearances of Meganthropus in some less-than-plausible material. You heard Meganthropus was a synonym for Biblical giants, builders of gigantic stone tools in Australia, a colossal 7-12 foot erectine, and a wayward and presumed gigantic Paranthropus/Australopithecine closely related to Bigfoot and Yeti tales. While there is hardly ever anything written about Meganthropus in popular literature there has been a surprisingly large amount of discussion about it in technical literature. And while there were some articles written in past decades, what I'm mostly going to be concerned about is the discussion this decade. Given that the material is often very technical in nature and I am not a trained Paleoanthropologist, I can't pretend that this post will be anything more than an introduction. Hopefully if there are those you of very interested in this subject, you can use this as a jumping board into the dark and scary world of Paleoanthropology.

Here is a complete list of the fossils that have been affiliated with Meganthropus:

Sangiran 5 / Sangiran 1939
Pithecanthropus dubius, Homo erectus, Meganthropus palaeojavanicus (?), Pongo sp.

This fossil fragment has not normally been associated with Meganthropus, although some have entertained the notion due to its fairly large size. Kaifu et al in their 2005 paper on fossil mandibles from Java compare it to other robust mandibles, but another recent paper by Tyler in 2004 (which they did not cite) demonstrates numerous characteristics found only in apes. Tyler seems to be controversial, but I have not seen any rebuttals to this identity.

Sangiran 6 / Meganthropus A
Meganthropus palaeojavanicus, Paranthropus palaeojavanicus, Homo erectus, Homo palaeojavanicus/Homo meganthropus

This fossil mandible fragment is by far the best known remain of Meganthropus. According to Tyler's 2001 paper on Meganthropus cranial remains, this is apparently the only available piece of Meganthropus for study, or at least until very recently. An illustration in Heuvelmans's On the Track of Unknown Animals demonstrates that this jaw is about half as big again as a human jaw, which surely must have captured a lot of imaginations. As noted in many materials (e.g. From Lucy to Language) teeth and jaws are very poor measurements of overall body size in primates, and Homo sapiens is fairly small-jawed. This mandible fragment is still apparently larger than any known Homo erectus jaws, and some characteristics appear to link it to other robust jaws. Kaifu et al in their very technical 2005 paper on mandibular remains from Java did not cover this fossil in detail but used the designation Sangiran 6a and 6b...and I have no idea what that is in reference to.

Sangiran 8 / Meganthropus B
Meganthropus palaeojavanicus, Homo erectus

This fossil mandibular fragment was originally thought to be approaching Sangiran "6a" in size, but Kaifu et al (2005a) take into account the crushed nature of the fossil and put it in the same size class (actually slightly smaller than) as Sangiran 5 and Sangiran 9. The third molar (the only preserved tooth) was still noticeably larger than any other teeth compared to it. The authors compare this fragment to other robust mandibles (Sangiran 5, 6a, 9, Bk 7909 and possibly Bk 8606) which share traits such as double rooted premolars which are atypical from Homo erectus. If Sangiran 5 is a pongid, then that makes comparisons quite problematic (more on this later).

Sangiran 9 / Mandible C / Meganthropus C ?
Pithecanthropus erectus, Pithecanthropus dubius, Homo erectus

Meganthropus designations skip from B to D, so it is not clear which one gets the "C" designation. This fossil was compared to other Meganthropus designated fossils by Kaifu et al 2005a and Tyler 2001b, but the relation seems very tenuous at best.

Sangiran 33 / Bk 7905 / Mandible H / Meganthropus C ?

The C designation may have been mentioned as Meganthropus C in Kramer's 1994 "A Critical Analysis of Southeast Asian Australopithecines" which is currently not online and quite unavailable to me. Drat. Tyler 2001b comments on this specimen and concludes that it is quite similar to Sangiran 9 and to a lesser degree the then un-reconstructed Sangiran 8. He theorized they might make a morphological "type", but what it was and whatever relation to Meganthropus it had he did not say. Kaifu et al make a somewhat similar conclusion, but again draw troubling comparisons to Sangiran 5.

Sangiran XX / Meganthropus D

This damaged mandible was found by a local farmer and recovered by Sartono in 1993. Tyler in his 2001a paper was the first to describe this fossil, which approaches Sangiran 6 in both the size of the mandible and the size/shape of the teeth. The pattern of tooth enlargement is apparently similar to Sangiran 9. Comparing Tyler's measurements with Kuifu 2005b's other erectines, this specimen seems to exceed other non-Sangiran erectines noticeably, but not outrageously (as say, compared to a H. sapiens). Tyler concludes that this specimen and Mandible H exceed what is normal for H. erectus.

Bk 8606

This is another fairly robust mandible that is unfortunately quite damaged. Kaifu et al 2005a say that it is too damaged to make meaningful conclusions, and I'll believe them on that.

Meganthropus I
Paranthropus palaeojavanicus, Meganthropus palaeojavanicus, Homo palaeojavanicus/Homo meganthropus, Homo erectus

This fragment of a skull was discovered by Sartono in 1959. It was described in an unpublished paper in 1991 by Sartono (I'm not sure why there was such a gap) and was finally published in Tyler 2001b. According to Sartono and Tyler, the fragment is part of the left parietal and upper occipital, but in an unpublished paper (presented as an abstract in 2003) by A. C. Durband, he re-interpreted it to be a lateral cranial vault and found it to be well within the range of H. erectus. I'd be curious about further discussion on this interpretation, but it will have to wait...

Sangiran 27

Discovered in 1979, this specimen is still apparently sitting in its matrix and awaiting further description. Tyler 2001a regards this as being a possible "Meganthropus" similar to Meganthropus II containing facial bones lacking in that specimen. It looks we'll have to wait again and see if a paper gets published on this one...

Sangiran 31 / Meganthropus II
Homo palaeojavanicus/Homo meganthropus, Homo erectus

Found in the early 80's, this fossil has been described by Sartono and Tyler, who pointed out that it received "remarkably little attention" in 2001a. The partial skull is apparently quite large even compared with the other "Meganthropus" cranial fragments. While it has been distorted, reconstructed it has the appearance of "a Homo erectus skull of excessive size, thickness, and platycephaly". Indeed, the width of the skull is around 164-200% of the height, as compared to 121-134% in most H. erectus. Even more interesting is a double sagittal crest (has anybody heard of this before?) and evidence of a chewing apparatus rivaling the largest Paranthropus species. The cranial capacity was estimated at 800 to 900 cubic centimeters, rather on the low side. Tyler's paper was the only one to comment on body size, and reasoned that the thickness of the occipital and nuchal plane indicated "an exceptionally large body". Durband analyzed this skull too and concluded that it did not immediately group with H. erectus, but fit in well enough with the H. erectus hypodigm (specimen sample) as to not support the genus Meganthropus. Tyler, of course, proposes an offshoot/relative of H. erectus called Homo paleojavanicus, not a separate genus. Discussion is lacking, of course.

There is a reconstruction of this skull using Sangiran 6 for the jaw. I have not heard any analysis on the accuracy of this or if it was based on an Australopithecus or not.

Meganthropus III
Homo paleojavanicus/Homo meganthropus, Homo erectus

Discovered in 1983 and described for the first time in Tyler 2001a, this is a right occipital fragment. Durband (2003, unpublished) contends through unknown means that this fossil re-interpreted falls within the norm for H. erectus. Further discussion on this is lacking to my knowledge.

Meganthropus africanus
Paranthropus robustus

Curiously, the worker Weinert described Meganthropus-sized teeth from Africa in 1950 (found in 1939 by Kohl-Larsen) African Meganthropus! These fossils were of course Paranthropus, and have somewhat confused the matter of Meganthropus as Paranthropus.

Scientific Opinions

Sexual Dimorphism
I first read about this opinion in the book on Gigantopithecus called "Other Origins". Presumably just using Sangiran 6, they stated (rather definitively) that Meganthropus was merely the male of Homo erectus! This view has been taken by the researcher Kramer most recently in 1994. Tyler 2004 points out that while this level of dimorphism (exceeding that of a gorilla) is found in Australopithecus africanus, A. afarensis and H. habilis, it is not found in Homo erectus in any other population. There are of course morphological traits separating large and small fossils from Java (read on).

This opinion was first theorized upon by J. T. Robinson, and has been occasionally held up by others such as Krantz. After Kramer's statistical analysis in 1994 strongly against this (according to Tyler), I haven't seen any more papers on this subject, so I suppose it can be regarded as a relic theory. In the topsey turvey world of Paleoanthrolopology, who knows though...

Extreme variation
This is the most widespread scientific theory on Meganthropus: for the most part it is only regarded as part of the Homo erectus hypodigm (to recycle a pedantic word). However, it should be noted that there is a very limited amount of material available (i.e. Sangiran 6) and that there has been a lot of recent research done by individuals who do not necessarily believe this (Kaifu et al and Tyler).

Multiple species
Tyler proposes a species related to Homo erectus (presumably either a direct offshoot or sister group) to be named either Homo palaeojavanicus (2001) or Homo meganthropus (2004). Kaifu et al 2005b erroneously state that he regards this as an Australopithecus africanus / Homo habilis (not conventionally equated) which he mentions nowhere. He does mention older propositions of those taxa being present in his papers though, and possibly related to Meganthropus.

What now?

This has definitely been another good instance of me biting off more than I can chew. Reading through Kaifu made me choke there for a bit. Hopefully if somebody more qualified comes by (with a lot more time) they could find this useful. John Hawks on his Weblog made an interesting little passing comment that perhaps we'll see Meganthropus again now that island dwarfism in hominids has become mainstream. We've already seen in the past that giants in the past can be popular and mainstream...with some help from the media and a good fossil I think that this could make a name for themselves with this. As for me, I'm afraid I'm a tad too thin-skinned for this sort of business, Paleoanthropology seems like it can be nasty business. But don't let that dissuade you!

Then of course there is the question of what Meganthropus exactly is anyways. The comparisons of some robust mandibles to that of an ape (apparently) are troubling in that it seems that the characters are more due to robustness than to actual phylogeny. Say, this reminds me of that cat skull I looked at. It definitely seems that this is some sort of relative of Homo erectus, but where does it fit in? The hypodigm (sorry) concept really does seem to be a matter of opinion, and I think that with evolution this rapid and recent, the concept of a species reveals itself as being a fairly arbitrary concept. Looking at the myriad of fossils: do all of them really divide so neatly as often portrayed? Why is there controversy as to which fossil belongs to which species? Humans like to categorize things, and I think that human evolution itself was far more complicated than we would like to accept. Look at how our concept of evolution progressed from the "strait line" diagram to the bush we have now. I have the feeling that we have only scratched the surface of what paleoanthropology (har har) can teach us. That's just my underqualified opinion though.

Even if Meganthropus II is classified definitively as Homo erectus some day, it still is an incredibly exciting find. Unless somebody comes along and ruins my fun, it looks like there actually was a "giant" of sorts after all.


P.S. Even though this is meant to be an introduction and not a complete history, if there is something you think is vitally important that I foolishly forgot to add (or more good sources) please tell me and I'll add it in. If Tyler, Durband, or Kaifu and his gang wish to pipe in and criticize the hell out of me, feel free! Please alert me to any discoveries or upcoming publications so I can write a blog documenting it rather than further bloating this monstrocity (which was mercifully whittled significantly beforehand). I also have no idea how Darren Naish writes his post with any manner of frequency after trying something like this, yeesh. Do you sleep?

References and Further Reading:
(Note: Registrations or being at a University required to read these files)

Ciochon, Russell; Olsen, John; James, Jamie. Other Origins: The Search for the Giant Ape in Human Prehistory. Bantam Books, 1990.

Durband, A. C. 2003. A re-examination of purported Meganthropus cranial fragments. American Journal of Physical Anthropology supplements for 2003. Available: Here

Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London England, 1995. Third Edition.

Johanson, Donald and Edgar, Blake. From Lucy to Language. Simon & Schuster Editions, 1996.

Kaifu, Yousuke; Aziz, Fachroel; Baba, Hisao. 2005 (a). Hominid Mandibular Remains From Sangiran: 1952-1986 Collection. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 128: 497-519
Available: Here

Kaifu, Yousuke; Baba, Hisao; Azis, Fachroel; Indriati, Etty; Schrenk, Friendemann; Jacob, Teuku. 2005 (b). Taxonomic Affinities and Evolutionary History of the Early Pleistocene Hominids of Java: Dentognathic Evidence. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 128: 709-726. Available: Here

Lovejoy, C. Owen. 1970. The Taxonomic Status of the 'Meganthropus' Mandibular Fragments from the Djetis Beds of Java. Man. Vol. 5 No. 2, 228-236. Available: Here

Tyler, D.E. 2001a. "Meganthropus" Cranial Fossils from Java. Human Evolution. Vo. 16 N. 2, p 81-101. Available: Here

Tyler, D. E. 2001b. Two New "Meganthropus" Mandibles From Java. Human Evolution. Vo. 16, N. 3-4, p. 151-158. Available: Here

Tyler, D. E. 2004. An examination of the taxonomic status of the fragmentary mandible Sangiran 5, (Pithecanthropus dubius), Homo erectus, "Meganthropus", or Pongo? Quaternary International. 117, 125-130. Available: Here


Caitling said...

If you want me to read a blog as long as this one, you really should start off with a joke. When your blog has to have a works cited in the end.....

Oh well, every other one that I read seemed entertaining. Pictures would have helped greatly.

I don't know where you're going with this topic, but I'm sure I'll have fun getting there.

Darren Naish said...

I do sleep, but not until 3 am or so.

And as you might have noticed from the recent lack of long posts, I find it very hard to fit 'proper' blog writing into what little 'spare' time I have. Someone should employ us to do this stuff... :) I'll let you know.

Darren Naish said...

Awesome post by the way.

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