The Possibility of Giants

charles byrne and the knipe twins
The Irish giant Charles Byrne (center) flanked by the giant Knipe twins.  John Kay, 1784.  Wellcome Collection

Various large bones, discovered across Europe from around 1500 onward, raised the possibility among Renaissance naturalists and intellectuals that very large humans – some five or even ten meters tall – once existed in the past.  The idea of giant ancestors already was prominent among scholars: the hugely popular works of Annius of Viterbo, particularly his 1498 Antiquitatum variarum, repeated a long-held notion that Noah and his sons were giants.

The idea of five or ten meter giants began to fade in the seventeenth century; Galileo declared that such giants were mechanically impossible, even as giant bones continued to be discovered.  But what about middling giants of say three or four meters?  Living giants existed who were well over two meters, such as the famous “Langer Anton” who died in 1596 and whose height was measured at 8 feet or 244 centimeters; even allowing for some exaggeration, this was a very tall man.  The tombstone of John Middleton, who died in 1623, claimed he was over 9 feet tall, a whopping 282 cm, but we may again be a bit skeptical.

The existence of such men (and women: Trijntje Keever, who died in 1633 in the Netherlands, claimed to be 254 cm tall) lent credence to the idea that even taller people existed in the past.  Stories of 9 or 10 or even 11 or 12 foot giants seemed probable.  In 1700, the Irish naturalist Thomas Molyneux described a very large frontal bone (the bone in the front of the skull) that he saw at a museum in Leiden.

Molyneux Os Frontis 1700
The giant frontal bone compared to a normal one.  Molyneux, Philosophical Transactions, 1700.

It would, he thought, have belonged to a man some 11 or 12 feet tall, or 335 to 365 cm, much taller than any contemporary individual.  Molyneux had measured the Irish giant Edmond Malone in the 1680s and found him to be 7 feet 7 inches tall (without shoes), or 231 cm.  He believed that 11 or 12 foot giants were not beyond the creative powers of nature.(1)  Bones found near Stonehenge in 1717 were similarly attributed to a nine-foot-tall giant, and other such bones appeared periodically for the next two centuries.  Sixty years later, in Epoques de la nature (1778) French naturalist the Comte de Buffon refused to dismiss the notion that giants could exist.  But he was skeptical about very large humans such as Theutobochus, whose supposed bones had been found in France in 1613.  Buffon agreed that there may have been very large giants in the distant past, although he discounted the idea of a race of giants.  More recent accounts – including that of Molyneux, which he deemed highly credible – placed 12 or 13 feet as an outside limit.  Buffon believed that this was also a physiological limit for the human form.

Evolutionary theory did not rule out the possibility of extra-large humans in the distant past.  In 1890, the discovery of the fossil bones of the 350 cm (11 ½ feet) Castelnau giant in France did not seem farfetched amid the discovery of giant ice-age fossils. In 1935, Dutch paleontologist G.H.R. von Koenigswald found some large fossilized human-like teeth in a pharmacy in China, among other “dragons’ bones” that were commonly used in Chinese medicine.  From these teeth, von Koenigswald hypothesized the existence of a giant hominid, which he called gigantopithecus.  He wrote in 1952, “Gigantopithecus might be regarded, with reservation, as a gigantic member of the human group … but … he cannot be regarded as ancestral to man.”(2)  Other discoveries of teeth appeared in the 1930s and 1940s in China and southeast Asia that supported the notion of a 12-foot-tall hominid.  Previous claims for extra-large giants had been based on fossil leg bones.

But could teeth provide an accurate estimate of overall body size?  In a carefully argued 1958 article in American Anthropologist, Stanley Garn and Arthur Lewis concluded that there was no correlation between tooth size and body size.(3)  Some people and animals just had big teeth.  Our fossil ancestors were probably smaller than we were, a conclusion that recent evidence has amply supported.  But like Annius and Molyneux and their early modern colleagues, humans continue to long for large impressive ancestors.

(1) Thomas Molyneux, “An Essay concerning Giants. Occasioned by Some Further Remarks on the Large Humane Os Frontis, or Forehead-Bone, Mentioned in the Philosophical Transactions of February, 1684/5 Number 168.” Philosophical Transactions, 22 (1700-01), 487-508.

(2) G.H.R. von Koenigswald, “Gigantopithecus blacki von Koenigswald, a giant fossil hominoid from the Pleistocene of southern China.” Anthropological papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 43, 4 (1952), 291-326.

(3) Stanley Garn and Arthur Lewis, “Tooth-Size, Body-Size and ‘Giant’ Fossil Man.” American Anthropologist,S. 60, 5 (October 1958), 874-880.