When Dr. Turvey, a biologist from London, traveled to China to visit the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, he didn’t expect to discover an entire new species of ape. The remains had originally been found in a 2,200-year old tomb along with skeletons of leopards, cranes, bears, and lynx. Experts believe Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang, was buried in the tomb. Qin Shi Huang ruled from 247-220 B.C.E. and is most famous for overseeing the Great Wall and being buried with the Terracotta Army. Turvey and his team became more interested in the ape remains, however, because there are currently no primates in the area.
China wouldn’t allow the scientists to extract DNA, but they did analyze the dimensions of the skull and jaw. These ended up being so different from existing species of gibbons that they realized the ape must be an entirely new species. Why was the skull in a tomb? Gibbons were revered, so important and wealthy people kept them as pets. You can see evidence of their status in paintings and literature. Turvey named the new gibbon Junzi imperialis.
Why isn’t the ape still around? Helen Chatterjee, a professor, says human disruption of the environment drove this gibbon species to extinction a few hundred years ago. Junzi imperialis may actually be the first primate casualty of our violence against the natural world. Based on historical data, gibbons were pushed into southern China. While the gibbon species from the tomb didn’t survive, the Hainan gibbon did. Found only on Hainan island, the most southern part of China, they are extremely endangered with only 26 individuals. They might be the rarest animal in the world. If conservation efforts fail, they will end up extinct like the Junzi imperialis.