Giant panda found in Western Han imperial tomb

The skeleton of a giant panda has been unearthed at the tomb of the Emperor Wen (202 B.C. – 157 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty in Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province, northwest China. Found in the Waizang Pit, one of more than 110 pits surrounding the large central mausoleum of the emperor, it is the first giant panda discovered in a Western Han emperor’s mausoleum.

The skeleton is complete and articulated, in good condition considering it is more than 2,000 years old. It was buried inside a brick structure with its head facing the emperor’s mausoleum and its tail facing west. A comparison with modern giant pandas indicates it belongs to the Qinling subspecies which is larger with a rounder face than the other known subspecies, Sichuan giant pandas.

The panda kept company with other rare animals. Burial pits around the mausoleum also contained the remains of tigers, tapirs, Indian wild buffaloes, oryxes, serows and yaks. The tapir is another find of immense historical significance. It was conclusively identified by the teeth, two of which are connected to form a ridge, a feature unique to tapirs. It too is a complete skeleton, the first complete tapir skeleton found in an archaeological context in China.

Eastern Han scholar Xu Shen defined tapirs in his 2nd century Chinese character dictionary Shuowen Jiezi as being “like a bear, yellow and black, and from Sichuan.” Tapirs were extinct in China by the Song Dynasty (960–1279), so for a thousand years or so, many scholars have hypothesized that Xu Shen was actually describing a giant panda. The discovery of a complete skeleton of a tapir in the same pit as a complete skeleton of a panda proves that they were both present in ancient China.

The animals were sacrificed for inclusion in the mausoleum complex as an imitation of the emperor’s palace. It was based on the belief that what the emperor had had in life, he would have in eternity, including the animals in the imperial garden. The underground mausoleum was filled with large quantities of the luxuries, foodstuffs, money, ironware, pottery, bronze seals, games, vehicles, weapons, attendants (in effigy form rather than human sacrifice by the time of the Han Dynasty), etc. the emperor had enjoyed during his lifetime so that the emperor would have the exact same lifestyle in the afterworld.

Only the imperial family had gardens full of exotic and rare animals like giant pandas, tapirs, red hares, tortoises and rhinoceroses. Many of them came to court as tribute from distant regions. Giant pandas were native animals, inhabiting the northern slope of the Qinling Mountains which was covered with a bamboo forest, but they were hard to find. A pottery figurine of a man and a pot containing grain also found in the burial pit are believed to represent the animals’ keeper and their fodder.

The bones of the animals will be tested for DNA to confirm their species and stable isotope analysis to investigate what they ate and where they came from. When the analyses are complete, the bones will be transferred to the Shaanxi Archaeological Museum for display.