Science Magazine published findings of a new ape species that was found buried in an ancient Chinese tomb.
Lady Xia's tomb would have certainly been something to behold. Excavated in 2004, the tomb belonged to the grandmother of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang. Inside was an array of riches—jade, gold, silver, engraved pottery, and two carriages complete with 12 horses, according to reports from Chinese state media.
National Geographic reported that twelve pits in the tomb also yielded bones from an exotic menagerie, including an Asiatic black bear, a leopard, a lynx, a crane—and an unusual-looking gibbon. The skull of this small ape is so strange that researchers now believe the high-status pet belongs to a newly described, but extinct, genus and species.
Stony Brook University Distinguished Professor of anatomical sciences, John Fleagle (who was not involved in this study) shared his expert thoughts about this unusual discovery.
"It is certainly an interesting specimen. It isn't clear how or why it was put in the tomb. Was it a pet? An animal from the same area, or a gift from some other part of China?" he said.
Thanks to the skull's archaeological importance, the researchers couldn't study the ape's DNA, which calls for destruction of part of the precious bones. Instead, they turned to what's known as morphometric analysis, or studying the specific shape and angles of the skull and teeth.
“The lower molars are just out of sight,” Fleagle told National Geographic. Fleagle agrees with the authors' distinction of the creature as a new genus and species, and he praises the rigorousness of their comparison, which included hundreds of specimens.
“It looked like everything they could get their calipers on,” he says
He points out that a life in captivity might explain some of the weird bone shapes, since “animals that were raised by humans and given funny things to eat sometimes have funny skeletons.” But, he adds, such effects likely couldn't produce such big chompers.