In 2021 and 2022, archaeologists in China began excavating the tomb of an emperor who died thousands of years ago. What they didn’t expect to find was the giant skull of one of the world’s most beloved Asian mammals.
Archaeologists were digging and uncovering the grave of Emperor Wen of Han, who died in 157 B.C.E. When he was buried, the emperor was placed in a massive and extensive mausoleum.
Buried along with Emperor Wen of Han were various animals, including golden snub-nosed monkeys, an endangered black-and-white tapir, red-crowned cranes, and Indian wild buffalo, all considered rare species from China’s Shaanxi Province.
However, there was one set of animal remains that really had archaeologists and the public in awe.
In the tomb was the complete skeleton of a giant panda. It was the very first complete panda skeleton to be found within an ancient Chinese burial site.
A team from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology recently identified the remains as belonging to a giant panda by examining them alongside other existing panda bones. This panda was found buried in a sacrificial pit right outside where the emperor was buried, and its head was facing his tomb.
In 1975, when archaeologists excavated the tomb of Emperor Wen’s mother, Empress Dowager Bo, they found the skull of a giant panda. It was not uncommon for Chinese royals to be buried alongside their beloved animals. To be buried with animals was a symbol of high status and was believed to provide the departed with companionship in the afterlife.
More average citizens used to be buried with standard domesticated animals, while the elite were buried with more exotic animals at the time, like turtles, deer, eagles, and monkeys.
Researchers have also estimated that the giant panda remains belonged to a Qinling panda versus a Sichuan panda, as the Qinling species have rounder heads and shorter noses, giving them more of an almost cat-like face.