ROYAL burials are just not what they used to be. While still a child, Qin Shihuang, who founded the Qin dynasty and unified China in 221BC, ordered a mausoleum built for himself that would measure 6.3km across at its widest point and include over 8,000 terracotta figures. His grandmother, Lady Xia, was also buried with several companions. When her tomb near Xi’an was excavated in 2004, archaeologists found in it the remains of a leopard, a lynx, a crane and a gibbon—a type of small ape.
Gibbons were treasured in ancient China. They served as pets for the elite in Lady Xia’s time and as models for fine art a few hundred years later. But the bones from the tomb are particularly extraordinary. In a paper published this week in Science, Samuel Turvey of the Institute of Zoology, in London, and his colleagues, show that they match those of no gibbon alive, so must come from a species that has become extinct since Lady Xia’s day.
The gibbon received a burial fit for a queen—or, at least, a queen’s companion—so its remains were reasonably intact. Dr Turvey and his colleagues were thus able to compare the animal’s skull, jaw and teeth with those of modern gibbons. They checked characteristics, such as the distance between eyes and the outline of molars, that are used to distinguish between modern gibbon species, and discovered differences significant enough to merit the classification of Lady Xia’s pet as an entirely new one.
The disappearance of this species, dubbed Junzi imperialis by Dr Turvey and his team, is the first documented extinction of an ape since the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. It was probably caused by habitat loss as China’s human population expanded at the expense of the country’s wild animals. Today, though China still supports wild gibbons, they are restricted to its southern fringes. Moreover, two gibbon species that once lived there have recently become locally extinct, though they are still found farther south. Time, perhaps, for another powerful sponsor to take up the gibbons’ cause?