An entirely new species of ape has been discovered buried in an ancient tomb in central China.
The remains of the now-extinct gibbon, which researchers have named Junzi imperialis, were found in a burial chamber in Shaanxi Province that dates back around 2,300 years.
Researchers believe it may be the first ape species to have perished as a direct result of human activities such as hunting.
“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 historic hunting or habitat loss,” note scientists at the Zoological Society of London, who led the research.
“However, the discovery of the recently extinct Junzi changes this, and highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular.”
The Junzi are believed to have completely died out less than 300 years ago and could be one of a number of now-extinct gibbon species that once inhabited central China.
Lead author Dr Samuel Turvey said the discovery suggests we are currently “underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity”.
“These findings reveal the importance of using historical archives such as the archaeological record to inform our understanding of conservation and stress the need for greater international collaboration to protect surviving populations of gibbons in the wild,” he added.
The partial cranium and lower jawbone of the ape were found in the burial chamber believed to belong to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army sculptures.
First excavated in 2004, the tomb contained 12 burial pits that contained animal remains, including leopards, lynx and black bears.
Archaeologist Hu Songmei, of the Shaanxi institute, told Science that imperial Chinese burial chambers were commonly arranged in this manner so that the departed could “continue to enjoy the life they knew” in the afterlife.
Gibbons were also regarded as high-status pets and considered to be wise and noble animals during the period of Emperor Qin’s rule up until 210 BC.
Today, gibbons are the most endangered of all the ape species due to a loss of their forest habitat, the illegal wildlife trade, the use of their body parts in Chinese medicines and poaching, according to the WWF.
The world's most endangered species
The Hainan gibbon, found on Hainan Island in southern China, is considered to be the world's rarest mammal, with only 26 still in existence.