When Samuel Turvey found a drawer labelled “gibbon,” he knew he had hit the jackpot. But what he found inside was better than he could have hoped for.
Yes, it was a gibbon, or rather the remains of one—parts of its face, jaw, and arm. These fragments were enough for Turvey to show that the animal belonged to a new species of gibbon, distinct from the 20 that live today, and all the ones that we know of from prehistory. And it had been discovered in, of all places, an ancient royal Chinese tomb.
Of all the apes, gibbons are the smallest, the most vocal, and the most at home in trees. Their unique wrists are similar to the ball-and-socket joints in our shoulders, allowing them to swing through branches at up to 34 miles an hour. In recent history, seven species swung through Chinese forests, but two have disappeared within the last few decades, and the rest are all critically endangered. One, the Skywalker gibbon, was only discovered last year. Another, the Hainan gibbon, is the rarest ape alive, with just 26 individuals clinging to existence in a small patch of forest. Between all the remaining species, there are probably no more than 1,500 individuals left.
It wasn’t always like this. Gibbons once abounded in China, and were culturally significant for centuries. Their haunting songs were associated with homesickness, and their supposedly “noble” qualities made them symbols of scholar-offiicals or junzi. “For a long time, I’ve been aware that gibbons are known from historical records across a large area of China,” says Turvey. “But no one knew what species these extinct populations belonged to.” He tried to find out by visiting the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in 2009, and examining specimens that had been collected from the ancient capital city of Xi’an. That’s when he found the gibbon drawer. “It was definitely a Eureka moment,” he says.