A skull extracted from a 2,200-year-old tomb in China represents a newly identified—and already extinct—gibbon, Junzi imperialis, paleontologists report today (June 21) in Science. Its human companion in the crypt is thought to be Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang.
“I don’t doubt for a second that it’s a new species, and probably a new genus,” Thomas Geissmann, a gibbon expert at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the study, tells Science. “We can assume that this vast area of central China [once] had many other species.”
Lady Xia’s tomb, discovered in 2004, held a menagerie of remains—leopard, lynx, black bear, crane, and other animals that were buried with her. Several years ago, Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London was visiting Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in China when he encountered the gibbon skull. Not allowed to extract DNA from the remains, Turvey and colleagues instead built a 3-D scan of the bones and compared it to data from other gibbon genera.
Junzi’s distinctive molars and other cranial features set it apart from other known gibbons. “It’s clearly a weird specimen,” John Fleagle, a primate anatomist at Stony Brook University who did not participate in the study, tells National Geographic.
Not only did the researchers find that Junzi is quite different from other gibbons, but it’s also no longer around. “[T]here is no evidence that gibbons have lived in the region where this specimen was found for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” coauthor Helen Chatterjee of University College London tells The Atlantic.