Archaeologists Find Mysterious Extinct Gibbon In The 2,300-Year-Old Tomb Of A Chinese Royal

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An ancient Chinese tomb belonging to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang (259 B.C. to 210 B.C.) — who unified most of China, founded the Qin Dynasty, and is particularly famous for his Terracotta Army, buried with him in his city-sized mausoleum — has yielded an eye-opening discovery.

Excavated in 2004, the 2,300-year-old grave was found to contain the remains of a large number of animals buried with the noblewoman as a mark of her high status — among which archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a mysterious gibbon species previously unknown to science.

According to National Geographic, Lady Xia’s tomb revealed not only a bounty of precious metals and stones alongside engraved pottery, but also a veritable menagerie.

Inside the ancient grave, located in the Shaanxi province of central China, the researchers discovered two carriages complete with 12 horses and 12 pits filled with animal bones, including the skeletons of a leopard, a Eurasian lynx, an Asiatic black bear, a crane, and an assortment of birds and domesticated mammals, notes National Geographic, citing China.org.cn.

But the most striking find was the unusual skull of a strange gibbon, which later turned out to belong to a completely new species and genus that is now already extinct, reports Live Science.

Completely New Gibbon Species

Described in a new study published on June 22 in the journal Science, the new gibbon species was dubbed Junzi imperialis (“junzi” is the Chinese word for “gentleman,” while “imperialis” marks the animal’s royal roots) and is unlike any other gibbons that we know of.

The most puzzling thing about the ancient gibbon skull, which isn’t complete but does include the mandible, are its incredibly oversized teeth.

While other features of the skull are also different from what we see in modern-day gibbons — for instance, the fossil has a steeper forehead and a more understated brow, shows study co-author Alejandra Oritz from Arizona State University — the massive size of the lower molar has stumped the research team.

Due to the major importance of the 2,300-year-old fossil, the archaeologists opted to forgo DNA testing in order to preserve the precious remains. Instead, they chose to study the skull through a method called morphometric analysis, which implies measuring the specific shape and angles of the skull and teeth.

In a laborious effort, the team also took laser measurements of the teeth and skulls of the other gibbon species (20 in total, with six species endemic to China) belonging to all four known gibbon genera. This database, comprising the dimensions for 477 skulls, as well as for 789 teeth from 279 individuals, revealed that the newfound fossil looks nothing like we’ve seen before.

The findings show that the 2,300-year-old gibbon, which scientists speculate was kept by Lady Xia as a luxury pet, represents a new species and genus that we’re only learning about through this amazing fossil.

Already Extinct

While uncovering a new species is always an exciting find, the discovery of Junzi imperialis is a wake-up call that shows the dire situation of the world’s gibbons, threatened to disappear due to loss of habitat, hunting, and illegal trade.

All the gibbon species in China are classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, notes the BBC, with two gibbon species already disappearing from the area in recent years.

The tragic thing about Junzi imperialis is that all evidence points to human interference as the cause for this species’ demise. Live Science notes that the newfound gibbon is the first ape species to go extinct since the last ice age.

Combing through Chinese historical records, the team uncovered that the enigmatic gibbon was once widespread throughout China’s territory and was last mentioned some 300 years ago, after which point it completely vanished.

“This previously unknown species was likely widespread, may have persisted until the 18th century, and may be the first ape species to have perished as a direct result of human activities. This discovery may also indicate the existence of unrecognized primate diversity across Asia,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

This contradicts the previous theory “that apes in the past have been somewhat resilient to anthropogenic pressures and incidental habitat loss,” Oritz told National Geographic.

“What we can start to see is that [modern gibbon species are] a relic of what was perhaps a much wider radiation of gibbons and primates across Asia,” says study co-author James Hansford, a postdoctoral research associate with the Zoological Society of London in the U.K. “We’ve lost more and more and more of them. We can’t even quantify what we lost because we don’t have the records of it.”

Because the animal is already extinct, there’s a lot left to the imagination when it comes to how Junzi imperialis looked and sounded. While the team believes he was similar in appearance to many of the gibbon species we see today, no one can be sure about the color of its fur or the specific sound of its singing voice.

Study co-author Helen Chatterjee, a professor of biology at University College London in the U.K., also chimed in on the meaning of this discovery.

“The Junzi find is a sobering lesson in the devastating effects that humans can have on the natural world. Nature cannot keep up, which is why many species — including several gibbon species — are faced with extinction.”

One of the gibbon species that Chatterjee refers to is the Hainan black crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus), the rarest primate in the world, with only 26 individuals still in existence.