2,200-year-old remains of sacrificed giant panda and tapir discovered near Chinese emperor's tomb

The excavation site of the mausoleum of Emperor Wendi of the Han Dynasty.
Excavation near the mausoleum site is ongoing, with the animal sacrifices being the latest discovery. (Image credit: Getty Images)

About 2,200 years ago, the subjects of Chinese emperor Wen sacrificed a giant panda and a tapir and buried their remains near the ruler's tomb in Xi'an, China, new research finds.

The discovery of the tapir skeleton surprised archaeologists, as it suggests that this animal — whose range no longer includes China — may have lived in the region during ancient times, the researchers said. While tapir fossils dating back over 100,000 years are known from China, the animals were thought to be extinct in the country before 2,200 years ago.

There are five species of tapir alive today; the newfound remains appear to be from the Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus), also known as the Malay tapir or Asian tapir. A fully grown Malayan tapir can be 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) long and weigh between 550 and 704 pounds (250 to 320 kilograms), according to the Denver Zoo. Adults have a distinctive black-and-white pattern.

Today, Malayan tapirs are endangered; fewer than 2,500 mature individuals exist, and the species is found in the wild only in parts of Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports.

Related: Ancient Chinese tombs hold remains of warriors possibly buried alive

Part of the mausoleum of Emperor Wen. Recently, archaeologists have excavated sacrificial pits near the site, revealing a variety of animal remains. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Sacrificial pits

Archaeologists excavated 23 pits containing ancient animal sacrifices near the tomb of Emperor Wen (reign circa 180 B.C. to 157 B.C.) between August 2021 and August 2022, a team led by Songmei Hu, an archaeologist with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, wrote in a paper published on the China Social Sciences Network research database.

In addition to the skeletons of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and tapir, the team found the remains of gaurs (a species of bison), tigers, green peafowl (also called green peacocks), yaks, golden snub-nosed monkeys and takins (goat-like creature), among other animals buried near Wen's tomb. These species still exist in China, but some are near extinction.

While the discovery is the first physical evidence of a tapir living in China at this time, ancient documents have hinted at their presence in the country. Depictions of animals that look like tapirs are found in ancient Chinese art, and ancient accounts describing what appear to be tapirs are known from ancient texts.

Malayan tapirs, with their distinctive patterns, can be seen here. Their range no longer includes China, but the new discovery suggests that these animals lived in the country 2,200 years ago. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The finding is proof that tapirs once roamed this part of China, according to Donald Harper, the centennial professor of Chinese studies at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new research.

"Prior to the new discovery, there was no evidence of the tapir inhabiting the geographical area of China in historical times, only prehistoric fossil remains," Harper told Live Science in an email. "Emperor Wen's tapir is the first solid evidence of the tapir's presence in ancient China in historical times."

The archaeologists who excavated the tomb did not return requests for comment by the time of publication.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.