Scientists announced Friday that a nearly perfectly preserved skull from more than 140,000 years ago in northeastern China represents a new species of ancient humans more closely related to us than Neanderthals — and could fundamentally change our understanding of human evolution.
It belonged to a man in his fifties with a big mind, deep eyes, and bushy eyebrows. Although his face was wide, his flat cheekbones made him look more like a modern human than other members of the extinct human family tree.
The research team linked the sample to other Chinese fossil finds and named the species Homo longi, or “Dragon Man,” referring to the area in which it was discovered.
Harbin’s skull was first found in 1933 in the town of the same name, but is said to have been hidden in a pit for 85 years to protect it from the Japanese army.
It was later excavated and delivered in 2018 to Ji Qiang, a professor at Hebei Jiu University.
“In our analyses, the Harbin group is more closely related to Homo sapiens than it is to Neanderthals – that is, Harbin shared a more recent common ancestor than Neanderthals,” co-author Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London told AFP. .
This, he said, would make Dragon Man “our sister” and the closest ancestor of modern humans to Neanderthals.
The results were published in three research papers in the journal The Innovation. The skull has been dated at least 146,000 years ago, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene.
Ji, who led the study, said: “While the Harbin skull shows typical archaic human traits, it displays a mosaic mix of primitive and derived characters, setting it apart from all other species previously called Homo characters.
The name is derived from Longjiang, which literally means “dragon river”.
The Dragon Man may have lived in the forested plains as part of a small community.
“These populations could have been land-based hunters,” Stringer said. “The winter temperatures in Harbin today look like they were much cooler than Neanderthals.”
Given where the skull and the large man it’s referring to was found, the team believes that humans have adapted well to harsh environments and managed to spread across Asia.
future gene sequencing
When studying the skull for the first time, the researchers identified more than 600 features that they inserted into a computer model that ran millions of simulations to determine the evolutionary history and relationships between different species.
“These indicate that Harbin and some other fossils from China formed a third lineage of later humans, along with Neanderthals and Homo sapiens,” Stringer explained.
Other discoveries include a fossilized skull from China’s Dali province, believed to be 200,000 years old and found in 1978, and a 160,000-year-old jaw found in Tibet.
Stringer explained that his Chinese colleagues decided to name Homo longi, which he called “a great name,” but said he would like to refer to the species as Homo Daliensis, which was used in the Dali Cranium.
Over 100,000 years ago, several human species coexisted in Eurasia and Africa, including humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, a recently discovered sister species of Neanderthals. Dragon Man can now be added to that list.
An alternative explanation is that Homo Longi and Denisovans are in fact the same thing. Fossils so far attributed to Denisovans include teeth and bones, but it’s not a complete skull, so scientists don’t know what it looked like.
But Neanderthals and Denisovans were genetically closer than Homo sapiens, while the new study suggests that anatomically Longi looked more like us than Neanderthals.
Therefore, continued uncertainty may require future genetic sequencing to help explain this.