If all animals, not just parrots and a few other exceptions, could talk, the first thing they might utter is a Planet of the Apes-ish “Get those filthy humans away from me.” And rightly so. Humans have been responsible for the demise of animals since they came into being and have caused the extinction of many. With the demise of the woolly mammoth now being attributed to climate change and not hunting, extinction-by-humans returned to being a recent phenomenon. That may change with the discovery of a mysterious unknown ape in a 2300-year-old Chinese tomb who appears to be the last of his line, courtesy of the species buried with it.
A new study published in Science refers to the creature as “The Noblewoman’s Ape” because it was discovered by conservation biologist and study co-author Samuel Turvey in a collection of bones taken in 2004 from a tomb near Xi'an, the current capital of Shaanxi province and an ancient imperial city. The archeologists who found it determined some of the bones likely belonged to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whose long China-unifying reign lasted from 256 BCE to 210 BCE and who was buried with the now famous terra cotta army.
Turvey saw the artifacts in 2011 and immediately spotted the unusual skull-and-jaw piece from a gibbon. It was unusual for a variety of reasons. While once common in central and southern China, gibbons were not seen in Shaanxi except as pets for the nobles and rich. Gibbons themselves were considered noble apes (as opposed to the messy, food-stealing macaques) and were referred to as “gentlemen” of the forest. The fossil was even more unusual because it was not from a known gibbon species, which are now classified as Critically Endangered. Why? Human encroachment, agriculture and development, of course.
While the Chinese government would not allow DNA analysis, Turvey took detailed measurements and, when compared to the four living genera of gibbons, determined it was a separate genus which he named Junzi imperialis in honor of its wise looks (Junzi is a Chinese word for ‘scholarly gentleman’) and noble-like nature. Ancient Chinese paintings show gibbons with colors and markings that look nothing like the modern-day apes. Junzi imperialis could be one of them.
When did Junzi imperialis become extinct? This was the first time a gibbon has ever been found in a human tomb and was most likely the emperor’s grandmother’s pet. That alone could have caused the extinction of the species since babies were caught by killing their mothers, thus impacting future generations. Gibbon experts speculate the last one died a few hundred years ago. This plus the wide variety of oddly-colored gibbons in the old paintings suggests there are more extinct gibbons to be discovered.
Is there any good news? Well, two new living species of gibbons have been discovered in the past two years. On the other hand, two other species are no longer found in China and another, the Hainan gibbon, is considered to be the world's rarest mammal with only 26 of them left.
Why this Junzi imperialis was buried with the emperor’s granny is still a mystery. Why there aren’t any left is not.