Animal archaeology around Western Han mausoleums

By HU SONGMEI, CAO LONG, and ZHANG WANWAN / 08-15-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The skeleton of an Asian forest tortoise unearthed from the Nan Mausoleum (above) and a Malayan tapir unearthed from the Ba Mausoleum (below) Photos: PROVIDED TO CSST

Situated at the western edge of the White Deer Plain in Xi’an, Shaanxi, lies the Ba Mausoleum, the final resting place of Emperor Wen of Han (203–157 BCE). About 2,000 meters southwest is the Nan Mausoleum, where Empress Dowager Bo [mother of Emperor Wen] was buried. 

The large outer burial pits surrounding the Ba and Nan mausoleums have yielded a treasure trove of cultural relics from the Han Dynasty. In the small sacrificial pits further away archaeologists have excavated a large number of bones of exotic animals. Preliminary measurement of data and ancient DNA analysis have identified the bones of 40 species, including the red-crowned crane, green peafowl, brown eared pheasant, land turtle, golden snub-nosed monkey, tiger, Malayan tapir, mainland serow, Indian wild buffalo, gaur, domestic yak, and takin.

Animal remains from Ba Mausoleum 

The animal sacrificial pits of the Ba Mausoleum are located on the western slope of the White Deer Plain, about 600 meters southwest of Emperor Wen’s tomb, with all the animals’ heads oriented towards the imperial tomb. The animal skulls from the Nan Mausoleum were found facing the tomb of Empress Dowager Bo. More than 60 pits containing burial accompaniments have been recently discovered during the archaeological exploration of the Ba Mausoleum, in addition to the 47 pits previously excavated in 1966, where remains of animals such as horses, sheep, pigs, dogs, chickens, geese, and cranes were unearthed.  

From 2021 to 2022, archaeologists excavated 23 animal sacrificial pits, unearthing a total of 11 rare species, including animals that inhabit tropical and subtropical regions in the south, such as the gaur, Malayan tapir, and green peafowl, as well as the golden snub-nosed monkey, giant panda, and takin—three of the renowned “Four Treasures of Qinling Mountains.” Among them, the tiger, Malayan tapir, domestic yak, and gaur were discovered in Shaanxi for the first time.

The Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) is the largest of the tapir species native to Malaysia, Sumatra, and Thailand. Though tapirs are extinct in China, their historical presence been confirmed. Tapir skulls and mandibles were unearthed from the Shang Dynasty Yinxu site in Henan Province, and bronze tapir-shaped zun vessels have been found in Shaanxi and Shanxi. Images of tapirs were also depicted on Han Dynasty stone pillar carvings in Shandong. Bai Juyi, a renowned Tang poet, depicted tapirs in his works: “The mo (tapir) has elephant trunk, rhinoceros eyes, cow tail, and tiger paws. It inhabits the mountains and valleys of the south” (tr. Harper). It indicates that tapirs existed in southern China during the Tang Dynasty.

Previous archaeological findings consisted of bronzeware and murals featuring designs resembling tapirs, with the exception of tapir bones discovered at the Yinxu site. Therefore, the unearthing of a complete tapir skeleton at the Ba Mausoleum holds immense significance. It confirms the presence of tapirs in northern China during Han.

Discoveries at Nan Mausoleum

The animal sacrificial pits of the Nan Mausoleum are located about 250 meters northwest of the tomb of Empress Dowager Bo. Archaeological exploration has since revealed over 380 animal sacrificial pits in this area. In 1975, archaeologists excavated 23 sacrificial pits here, among which the most important discoveries were the complete skeleton of a rhinoceros and the skull of a giant panda. From December 2020 to April 2022, the archaeological team explored the Nan Mausoleum and a total of another 55 burial pits were excavated, containing bird, mammal, and reptile remains.

Preliminary analysis identified 30 species of sacrificial animals, consisting of 18 bird species, one reptile species, and 11 mammal species, including golden eagles, green peafowls, brown-eared pheasants, red-crowned cranes, golden snub-nosed monkeys, rhesus monkeys, tigers, Sumatran serows, goitered gazelles, sika deer, Siberian roe deer and other rare wild animal species. Among them, the most significant findings were the first-ever discovery of the Asian forest tortoises and ground hornbills in Shaanxi.

The Asian forest tortoise (Manouria emys) was found enclosed by a brick fence, with a kneeling pottery figurine and a ceramic jar to its south, representing the keeper and the vessel for animal food. The carapace length of Chinese tortoises is generally no more than 30 cm, but the carapace length of the tortoise discovered at the Nan Mausoleum was 52 cm, indicating it might be the largest tortoise species in Asia—the Asian forest tortoise. 

The ground hornbill (Bucorvus sp.) is subdivided into the northern ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) and the southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri). They inhabit African savannas, with a large figure and obvious omnivorous nature. The well-preserved humerus, femur, tarsometatarsus, and occipital bones unearthed from Pit K33-4 suggest that they belong to a species of large bird. These remains closely resemble the ground hornbills from the three-dimensional database of avian skeletal morphology (, yet are slightly larger in size. 

Scientific significance 

The large number of rare bird and exotic animal remains discovered in individual tombs in the Ba and Nan mausoleums are the first of their kind discovered in China. Current excavation materials reveal that such animal sacrificial pits were only found at the tombs of emperors, empresses, and empress dowagers, which were symbols of social roles and status. These findings provide evidence for the types of animals kept in enclosed royal grounds recorded in ancient texts. The animals from the Ba and Nan mausoleums tally with the depictions in ancient texts, such as the “Shanglin Fu” by the Western Han scholar Sima Xiangru and “Liangdu Fu” by the Eastern Han historian Ban Gu.

These archaeological studies can help reconstruct the ecological environment and climate around the Ba Mausoleum. The existence of animals such as Malayan tapirs, gaurs, rhinoceros, ground hornbills, and green peafowls indicate that the climate at that time was rather humid and hot, so animals living in southern China today could survive there [in northern China] during the Han Dynasty. The existence of rhesus monkeys, golden snub-nosed monkeys, tigers, giant pandas, sika deer, Siberian roe deer, Southern red muntjacs, Sumatran serows, takins, Mongolian gazelles, yaks, and gaurs suggests that the Shanglin Yuan [a royal park during the Qin, Han eras] enjoyed a diverse ecological landscape with forests, bamboo, grasslands, rivers, lakes, and swamps. Since Western Han, as the ecological environment and climate had been changing, and the Shanglin park grounds were ploughed, some animals lost their habitat and disappeared successively. By the late Western Han, rhinoceroses had disappeared from the Guanzhong [in central Shaanxi] and Qinling Mountains.  

The discoveries also prove that at least during Western Han, tapirs and giant pandas were identified as two different species, corresponding respectively to the “Mo” and “Meng-shi” mentioned in “Shanglin Fu.” In two burial pits of the Ba Mausoleum, two complete animal skeletons were unearthed at the same time. One was identified as a Malayan tapir, large in size, with four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet, belonging to the most primitive type of odd-toed mammals. The other was identified as a carnivorous giant panda. The ancient name of the giant panda, “Meng,” was derived from Classic of Mountains and Seas compiled in the Warring States period. The name “Giant panda” was given by the French zoologist Armand David in 1900.

The unearthed animals re-present the scenes of the imperial families and nobles hunting and playing in the royal garden. According to the Book of Han, Emperor Wen was particularly fond of hunting. The arrangement of imitating living facilities within mausoleums embodies the traditional funeral belief that the deceased should be served as if they were alive.

Hu Songmei (research fellow) and Cao Long (research librarian) are from Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology; Zhang Wanwan (assistant librarian) is from Xi’an Institute of Cultural Relics Protection and Archaeology.