Discovery Of 'Dragon Man' Skull In China May Replace Neanderthals As Our Closest Relatives

Discovery Of 'Dragon Man' Skull In China May Replace Neanderthals As Our Closest Relatives

A trio of papers published in The Innovation reported that the Homo longi lineage may be our closest relatives ― and may reshape our understanding of human evolution.

A skull preserved almost perfectly for more than 140,000 years in northeastern China represents a new species of ancient people more closely related to us than even Neanderthals, scientists reported in his new finding, and could fundamentally alter our understanding of human evolution.

“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” said Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University and author on two of the papers.

“However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of Homo sapiens.”

The Harbin cranium was discovered in the 1930s in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, but was reportedly hidden in a well for 85 years to protect it from the Japanese army. 

It was eventually unearthed and handed over to Ji Qiang, a professor at Hebei GEO University, in 2018.

According to the new research, the Harbin cranium belonged to a large-brained man in his fifties with deep-set eyes and thick brow ridges. Though his face was broad, he had flat, low cheekbones that resembled modern people more than other extinct members of the human family tree.

The researchers first studied the external morphology of the cranium using over 600 parts of the Harbin skull and compared the data to 95 other hominin skulls to determine whether Homo longi was more like Homo sapiens or Neanderthals, and then used a computer model to run millions of simulations to build trees of relatedness to other fossils. 

Computer analysis revealed that "Dragon Man" was likely closer to modern humans on the evolutionary tree than to Neanderthals, implying that the species shared a more recent common ancestor with us.

"Because the Harbin fossil is so well preserved and informative, it is one of the most important finds so far for the last 500,000 years of human evolution," Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who co-authored the studies, told Insider.

The Chinese researchers believe the Harbin skull is distinct enough to be classified as a new species, but Stringer is not convinced. He believes it is similar to another discovered in Dali County, China, in 1978.

Stringer believed that dragon man could be a member of the Denisovan population that lived in Asia from 500,000 to 30,000 years ago. A little-known and enigmatic human known largely from DNA and bone fragments recovered from Siberia.

“Certainly this specimen could be Denisovan but we have to be cautious. What we need is much more complete skeletal material of the Denisovans alongside DNA,” Stringer said.

The study noted that Denisovans and Homo longi both had large, similar molars. Still, it was impossible to say for sure due to the small number of fossils available for comparison, said Xijun Ni, who hoped that DNA experiments would reveal whether they were the same species.

The discovery, according to the researchers, has the potential to rewrite the story of human evolution. 

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