In Depth

Mystery ape discovered in ancient Chinese tomb

Extinct species of gibbon suggests humans wiped out primate populations long before the modern era

A previously unknown species of ape has been discovered buried in an ancient tomb in China.

The bones of the long-extinct variety of gibbon, named Junzi imperialis by scientists, were unearthed in what has been described as a “grave menagerie” from a 2,200-year-old tomb in the ancient Chinese capital city of Chang’an.

During this period of China’s history, “gibbons were considered noble animals and were often kept as pets”, says The Independent. The ancient grave “also contained the skeletons of leopards, lynx, bears, cranes and domestic animals”, the paper adds.

Junzi imperialis may be the first species of ape to vanish as a direct result of human actions, according to scientists led by the Zoological Society of London. Their discovery was documented in the journal Science.

Although several other kinds of primates have disappeared during this time, “the gibbon would become the first ape known to have vanished since the last ice age ended, 12,000 years ago”, says Nature.

“All of the world's apes - chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons - are threatened with extinction today due to human activities, but no ape species were thought to have become extinct as a result of hunting or habitat loss,” said lead researcher Dr Samuel Turvey.

“However, the discovery of the recently extinct Junzi changes this, and highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular.”

High-tech computer modelling “shows the ape is a new species and genus of gibbon, which probably survived until a few hundred years ago”, says the BBC.

It is almost certain that the gibbon's demise is evidence of intense human pressures on the environment during this period of history, according to co-researcher Prof Helen Chatterjee of University College London.

“Our historical data shows that these factors caused a southward shift of gibbons towards their present day distribution which is restricted to the very far south of China - and in the case of Junzi, its eventual extinction,” she told the broadcaster.

Most species of gibbon today “are under threat from the destruction of forests, hunting and illegal trade”, reports the BBC. Two species of gibbon have recently disappeared in China and all surviving Chinese species are classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

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