There was a time in China, around 2,300 years ago, when people of high status were entombed in crypts that would also contain the bodies of exotic animals and domestic livestock. Animals such as leopards, lynx, black bears, and cranes, among others, have been found in these tombs. Archaeologists working on a set of 12 burial pits were surprised to discover the remains of an unknown and extinct type of ape inside one of them.
Image via IFL Science
It is believed that the skull found in the tomb was that of a gibbon but that it is not from any of the varieties known to be in existence today. This species has been named junzi imperialis. Junzi were politicians appointed by the emperor and the word means "scholarly gentleman." In ancient China gibbons were culturally significant since they were considered very noble and the word means "schoe animals. Gibbons were therefore popular as high-status pets during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.).
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Because gibbons tend to live in wet climates, old bones are rarely found. This makes the bones found in the tomb of extra significance. They not only appear to be from a different species of known gibbon, they may also be from a different genus. Scientists began going through historical records to try to track the existence of this small ape. It appears that this gibbon may have hung on until just 300 years ago and may be the only ape driven to extinction by human hunting and habitat loss.
Image via IFL Science
This finding may also show that scientists have underestimated the impact humans have had on primate diversity. This may shed new light on the existing primates in peril, many of which are on the brink of extinction. Gibbons, in particular, are at great risk.
Image via Wikipedia
This particular gibbon may have belonged to Lady Xia. Her husband was emperor of China for three whole days during a turbulent time. She was also grandmother to Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who ordered the building of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors.
Apparently Chinese royalty and nobility were even more into exotic pets 2,300 years ago than some people are today. In this case they did us a favor so that we found something new, but how much did human activity contribute to this ape's demise?