A previously unknown, extinct species of gibbon has been found in the most unlikely of places – the 2300-year-old tomb of a Chinese noblewoman.
The identification of the species, formally named Junzi imperialis, was made on the basis of a partial facial skeleton discovered in a tomb thought to contain the remains of Lady Xia, grandmother of China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang (259– 210 BCE). The find is described in a paper in the journal Science.
A team of researchers led by Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London in the UK reveals that the bones were among many contained in 12 “menagerie-grave” pits contained within the tomb. Such animal-filled enclosures have previously been found in other Chinese tombs of a similar age.
The pit in which the fragmented skull was found – originally excavated in 2004 – also contained the remains of lynx (Lynx lynx), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), leopard (Panthera pardus), unidentified species of crane and several domestic animals.
The tomb is located in the ancient capital city of Chang’an, in the province of Shaanxi.
Turvey and colleagues note that in ancient China gibbons were held to be important and culturally significant. By the start of the Zhou Dynasty, 1200 years after the suggested interment of Lady Xia, they had become high status pets regarded as symbols of scholar-officials.
Until recently there were six species extant in China. Today there are four – two of which survive in populations of fewer than 30 individuals.
None live closer than 1200 kilometres from Chang’an. Records show gibbons being caught close to the city as late as the tenth century, and in the surrounding province well into the eighteenth.
The researchers were unable to extract genetic information from the latest remains, but on the basis of bone and tooth shapes concluded that the ape was only distantly related to all modern species and others contained in the region’s sparse fossil record. On that basis, they accorded it a new genus, as well as species.
The extinction of J. imperialis, they note, constitutes the earliest known disappearance of a continental ape species in the modern human era. They also suggest that it may point to other, currently unknown, extinct gibbon species in China – some of which might be those mentioned in contemporary accounts.