June 21 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a new extinct species of gibbon. The ape's skull was discovered inside the tomb of the grandmother of an ancient Chinese emperor.
Lady Xia was the grandmother of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who came to power in 221 BC and ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors. The noblewoman's tomb was first excavated in 2004. Inside the tomb, researchers discovered several animal burial pits.
New analysis of a 2,200-year-old ape skull recovered from one of the pits suggests Lady Xia kept as a pet a gibbon unlike any modern species.
"Having gibbons as pets appears to have been common among Chinese royals during ancient times," Alejandra Ortiz, a researcher at New York University, told NPR.
Though researchers were unable to recover DNA from the skull, they confirmed the species uniqueness by analyzing the skull's structure in 3D and comparing it to the skulls of known gibbon species.
Scientists named the newly discovered species Junzi imperialis, and described the extinct ape in a new paper, published this week in the journal Science.
Researchers believe the gibbon represents the earliest known ape extinction after the end of the last Ice Age, and perhaps the earliest mammalian extinction caused by humans.
"Our discovery and description of Junzi imperialis suggests that we are underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity," Samuel Turvey, researcher at the Zoological Society of London's Institute of Zoology, said in a news release. "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."
Today, the ecological impacts of humans, including deforestation and hunting, are no secret. The research suggests these threats have ancient roots. Previous research has shown the range of modern gibbons began to shrink a few centuries ago. All modern gibbons found in China are currently listed as critically endangered.
Gibbons are an important part of Chinese cultural history, appearing in art for thousands of years. And yet, their revered status hasn't saved them from the ill effects of human development and behavior.
"The Junzi find is a sobering lesson in the devastating effects that humans can have on the natural world," Helen Chatterjee, a biology professor at University College London, told the Los Angeles Times. "Human exploitation of nature -- such as gibbons -- and habitat destruction are causing extinction rates to escalate beyond all natural levels and at exponential rates."