Researchers have uncovered the skull and jaw of a now-extinct, but never-before-seen genus of gibbon, which they’ve named Junzi imperialis.
Importantly, the remains – which were uncovered from a 2,300-year-old Chinese temple – have evidenced the direct role of humans in Junzi’s extinction, the first extinction of its kind among primates, according to a new study published in the journal Science on Friday.
“What’s outstanding about this study is that it represents a unique genera, that it’s something that is genuinely new to science,” said James Hansford, one of the authors of the study. “But it also represents the first known human-driven primate extinction that we know of as well.”
Many species have gone extinct. But since the end of the Ice Age, when humans started affecting species, there’s been no evidence of any human-driven ape extinctions, according to Hansford.
“All the evidence points to humans being the dominating factor behind the loss of this species,” said Susan Cheyne, a director of the Borneo Nature Foundation, who is familiar with the study.
“We thought that they had historically been much more resilient to human effects, but in fact they’ve actually been suffering for much longer than we thought,” said Hansford. “This will hopefully highlight the plight of gibbons and other primates in particular.”
Gibbons may be the smallest of apes but their behavior and presence are striking. They sing loudly and melodically, have developed an elaborate language, and can swing from branch to branch at speeds of up to 35 mph.
The bones were found at a royal temple in China in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, which was formally an important imperial city. The temple is thought to be the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the Qin dynasty’s first emperor, according to the study.
The imperial Chinese revered gibbons, considering them regal members of the primate family – compared to monkeys, which were seen as rascally. As such, it was unsurprising to find these bones in a royal tomb, according to Susan Cheyne. Junzi means scholarly gentleman, and testifies to how the Chinese regard the primates.
Gibbons are found across Asia, with several species – including the Hainan black crested gibbon and the Cao-vit crested gibbon – being threatened by imminent extinction. There are only 26 remaining Hainan gibbons in the world, according to Hansford.
Living gibbon species are suffering more and more from both habitat loss and the illegal pet trade in Asia, according to Cheyne.
“We now know almost exactly if we don’t deal with this double whammy of habitat destruction and hunting. Eliminating one without the other is not enough,” said Cheyne.
Hansford hopes that we can use the study not only to inform the present but to improve it too.
“I hope we can highlight the plight of the living gibbons as well. We use the past to help understand the modern era and look to the future as well, so we can start to conserve what we have and regenerate the things we’ve lost.”