Researchers have identified a new genus and species of now extinct gibbon in the tomb of an ancient Chinese noble woman.
The remains of the gibbon, named Junzi imperialis, consisted primarily of a partial facial skeleton. It was discovered amidst the grave-menagerie of an approximately 2,200 to 2,300-year-old tomb in the ancient capital city of Chang'an, in modern Shaanxi China.
Junzi imperialis represent the first documented evidence of ape extinction following the last ice age.
The gibbon may have been the first to vanish as a direct result of human activity, challenging the notion that ape species have not been rendered extinct by humans throughout time, said Samuel T. Turvey from the Zoological Society of London, in the paper detailed in the journal Science.
"All of the world's apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans 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," Turvey was quoted as saying to the BBC.
"However, the discovery of the recently extinct Junzi changes this, and highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular," he added.
The tomb in which the remains were found and perhaps the gibbon itself, may have belonged to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, the study said.
Gibbons were perceived as "noble" in Chinese culture, and were also kept as high status pets.
Based on detailed analyses of cranial and dental measurements, Junzi imperialis was determined as a new genus and species.
Gibbons – the smallest apes – are known for their haunting songs and their ability to swing through the tree tops on long arms. They are found in the tropical rainforests of Asia.