Extinct Gibbon Found in 2,250-Year-Old Tomb of Chinese Noblewoman
The remains of a previously unknown genus and species of gibbon, Junzi imperialis, have been found in an approximately 2,200-2,300 year-old royal tomb in Shaanxi province, China.
Gibbons (family Hylobatidae) have played an important role in Chinese culture for thousands of years, being present in ancient literature and art.
Their perceived ‘noble’ characteristics made them symbols of scholar-officials, and they became high-status pets from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC).
The tomb in which the remains of Junzi imperialis were found may have belonged to Lady Xia, grandmother of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the leader who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors.
The tomb, discovered in 2004 at Shenheyuan, Xi’an (formerly the ancient capital Chang’an), was found to contain twelve pits with animal remains.
In one of the pits, archaeologists found skeletons of a leopard, a lynx, an Asiatic black bear, a crane, domestic mammals and birds, and a partial facial skeleton of a gibbon.
Sophisticated computer modeling reveals that the ancient gibbon bones represent an entirely new genus and species.
“Junzi imperialis represents the first documented evidence of ape extinction following the last Ice Age,” said Dr. Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London and co-authors.
“Historical accounts describe gibbons being caught near Chang’an into the 10th century and inhabiting Shaanxi province until the 18th century. These accounts may represent other undescribed, now extinct, species”
The findings, published in the journal Science, challenge the notion that ape species haven’t been rendered extinct by humans, throughout time.
“Our discovery and description of Junzi imperialis suggests that we are underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity,” Dr. Turvey said.
“The findings reveal the importance of using historical archives such as the archaeological record to inform our understanding of conservation and stress the need for greater international collaboration to protect surviving populations of gibbons in the wild.”
Samuel T. Turvey et al. 2018. New genus of extinct Holocene gibbon associated with humans in Imperial China. Science 360 (6395): 1346-1349; doi: 10.1126/science.aao4903