Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2017

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Ciochon, Russell L.

First Committee Member

Ciochon, Russell L.

Second Committee Member

Franciscus, Robert G.

Third Committee Member

Kitchen, Drew

Fourth Committee Member

Harrison, Terry

Fifth Committee Member

Holton, Nathan


Today’s highly endangered orangutan populations of Sumatra and Borneo offer but a glimpse into the taxonomic diversity and vast regional distribution enjoyed by orangutans and their great ape relatives in East Asia over the past 2.5 million years—a time when tropical forest pongine habitats stretched from Java to southern China. In addition to the giant terrestrial ape Gigantopithecus, other great ape genera have been proposed to have existed within this hominid community. The taxonomic diversity of this great ape faunal array is even further complicated when the purported presence of hominins at Early Pleistocene sites older than 1.85 Ma is considered. Highly acidic, the jungle floors of East Asia are notoriously bad at fossil preservation decomposing skeletal and dental evidence quickly. Fortunately, ph-neutral limestone caves have acted to offset these forces. The outcome of this peculiar taphonomy has left us with many teeth, but very little bone. With only unassociated fossil dentition to work with, modern geometric morphometrics offers scientists one of the few cutting-edge tools capable of systematically assessing this material reliably.

This dissertation applies modern geometric morphometric statistical analysis to over two thousand fossil hominid teeth (Appendix A) from the Quaternary of southern China and Southeast Asia, which offers unique insight into the taxonomic diversity present in this sole Pleistocene great ape community. This study provides a much clearer understanding of the composition, paleoecology, and regional distribution of Pleistocene great ape communities of East Asia. Concordant with previous research, the main study and pilot study conducted in this dissertation showed Homo sapiens to always be morphologically and statistically distinct from extant and fossil orangutans. In turn, Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii were continuously shown to be distinct from each other as well as from fossil Pongo groups.

This investigation refutes hominin assignments for several teeth previously placed within early East Asian hominins (showing them to be orangutans instead) but supports the hominin status of the Jianshi upper third premolar. In combination with a published age of 1.95–2.15 million years (Ma), the hominin assignment reaffirmed here for the Jianshi dentition originally classified as human by Liu, Clarke, & Xing (2010) may offer a challenge to evolutionary models that recognize the 1.85 Ma Dmanisi hominins as the earliest hominins outside of Africa. This fact is often lost on most contemporary scientists due to their preoccupation with the 2.5 Ma Longgupo mandibular fragment, once thought to be a hominin but now assignable to an ape. Like the Jianshi upper third premolar, it is also based on a single specimen (in this case, a mandibular fragment).

This dissertation supports the existence of Ciochon’s (2009) “mystery ape”. It refutes Schwartz et al., (1995) multiple Vietnamese Pongo taxa, including the proposed genus “Langsonia,” which is reassigned here to Pongo or the “mystery ape,” while placing Vietnamese fossil orangutans into either Pongo weidenreichi or Pongo devosi. Teeth from the Ralph von Koenigswald collection originally assigned to “Hemanthropus” were also determined to be representative of either the “mystery ape” or Pongo. Indeterminate “hominin” teeth were assignable to either Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, or Pongo only; no evidence was found for any other types of hominin species present in the collections examined for this study.


Dental anthropology, Dragon's teeth, Fossil Pongo, Geometric morphometrics, Jianshi


xxv, 1605 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 1562-1605).


Copyright © 2017 Toby R. Avalos

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