A skull of an ancient species of gibbon has been found inside the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China's first emperor Qin Shihuang.
The ancient Chinese emperor, who rose to power in 221 BC, ordered the construction of China's famed Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. His grandmother's tomb, which was first excavated in 2004, had several animal burial pits.
Analysis of the 2,200-year-old ape skull discovered in one of the pits hints that Lady Xia had a gibbon as pet. Alejandra Ortiz from the New York University said that having gibbons as pets is apparently common among ancient Chinese royals.
Other animal remains found include those Asiatic black bear, leopard, lynx, crane, as well as domestic mammals and birds.
New Species Of Gibbon
Ortiz and colleagues were not able to recover DNA from the skull, but they were able to confirm it as a new species by analyzing the skull's structure in 3D and comparing this to those of known gibbon species.
They named the species Junzi imperialis and described it in a paper published in the journal Science. Historical records show that this new gibbon species likely survived until less than 300 years ago.
Possibly The First Ape Species To Go Extinct Because Of Human Activities
The researchers said that Junzi were likely widespread and could be the first ape species that became extinct due to man-made activities such as hunting and habitat loss.
"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," Ortiz and colleagues wrote in their study, which was published on June 22.
It appears that while this species of ape is an important part of China's cultural history, appearing in Chinese art for millennia, its revered status did not save it from the effects of human behavior and development.
Today, apes including chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and gibbons face threats of extinction because of human activities. All modern gibbons in China are in fact included in the list of critically endangered animals. How did this ancient species go extinct before the industrial age?
Study researcher Helen Chatterjee, from University College London, said that some threats are similar to those that threaten today's apes such as habitat destruction and overhunting for food, pet trade, and traditional medicines.