When Emperor Wen of Han died in 157 B.C.E., he was buried in an enormous mausoleum alongside dozens of animals, including golden snub-nosed monkeys, Indian wild buffalo and red-crowned cranes. The sheer number of rare species represented in the tomb, located in China’s Shaanxi Province, impressed the archaeologists who excavated it in 2021 and 2022. But it was another find that captured the public’s attention: the complete skeleton of a giant panda, which is the first of its kind discovered at an ancient Chinese burial site.
A team led by Hu Songmei, an archaeologist at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, identified the remains by comparing them with existing panda bone specimens, reports Liu Kexin for West China Metropolis Daily. The animal was buried in a sacrificial pit outside Wen’s grave, with its head facing the tomb and its tail facing west. Its body was placed on top of a tiled brick structure.
While finding a complete skeleton is unusual, partial remains of sacrificed pandas have been discovered at similar sites. In 1975, archaeologists excavating the nearby mausoleum of Wen’s mother, Empress Dowager Bo, found a giant panda’s skull, but its body was missing, perhaps stolen by graverobbers, notes the Washington Post’s Lyric Li. More recent excavations of Bo’s tomb yielded golden eagles, sika deer and rhesus monkeys.
Wen and Bo were far from the only ancient Chinese royals laid to rest with animal companions for the afterlife. Warrior queen Fu Hao, a member of the Shang dynasty, was buried with six dogs (as well as 16 sacrificed humans) around 1250 B.C.E.; the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, contained the bones of deer, sheep, chicken, fish and turtles, not to mention thousands of terracotta warriors. While everyday citizens were sometimes buried with domesticated animals, rarer species were reserved chiefly for imperial mausoleums.
As Hu and colleagues Cao Long and Zhang Wanwan write in the journal Chinese Social Sciences Today, sacrificed animals “were symbols of social roles and status” for China’s elite. Their presence in ancient tombs supports written accounts of Han royal gardens, which mention many of the same species. The animals may have been buried to recreate the gardens for the deceased in the afterlife.
“The arrangement of imitating living facilities within mausoleums embodies the traditional funeral belief that the deceased should be served as if they were alive,” write the researchers.
While Han dynasty rulers may have had a particular penchant for pandas, the number of sacrificial pits and the diversity of species discovered in the Shaanxi tombs indicates the bears were more likely included in the burials as part of a replica royal garden, Cao tells the West China Metropolis Daily.
The pandas could have been offerings from southern China, the species’ traditional habitat. Alternatively, reports Echo Xie for the South China Morning Post, the bears may have been more abundant in Shaanxi, which is in northwest China, during the Han dynasty, with a wetter, warmer climate encouraging the growth of bamboo. The researchers plan to conduct DNA analyses to determine where the sacrificed animals originated and what they ate before they died.
In addition to the panda remains, the team found the complete skeleton of an Asian tapir, an endangered black-and-white mammal most closely related to horses and rhinos. The animal went extinct in China some 1,000 years ago, during the Song dynasty, leading to confusion over whether references to tapirs in ancient Chinese texts refer to the large herbivorous mammal or the similarly colored panda. Per the West China Metropolis Daily, the presence of both species in the same tomb suggests that people in Han China were describing two different animals.