Research into an impeccably preserved skull, known as the Harbin cranium, has suggested it might belong to a new human species – Homo longi or ‘Dragon Man’ – that may have been a closer living relative than even the Neanderthal.
The largest skull so far discovered from a Homo species contained a brain the size of ours, but had larger, squarish eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. These differences in the Harbin cranium, which is held in the Geoscience Museum in Hebei GEO University, China, led the team of researchers to believe it is from a different species to Homo sapiens.
“The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world,” says author Qiang Ji of Hebei GEO University. “This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens.
“While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species.”
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The team’s reconstruction of human evolution placed Dragon Man as a closer ancestor than Neanderthals, making it our closest-known hominin relation.
“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” says author Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. “However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of Homo sapiens.”
The features of the skull, which was reportedly discovered in 1933 in Harbin City in northeastern China, suggest it may have come from a 50-year-old male who lived in a small community in a forest environment.
“Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, and gathered fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even caught fish,” says Ni.
Using geochemical analysis, the team dated the cranium to about 146,000 years ago in the Middle Pleistocene, a time when there was significant human migration. In its three papers, published in The Innovation, the team suggests Homo longi may have come across Homo sapiens during this time.
“The divergence time between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed – over one million years,” says Ni.
“We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations coexisting in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time,” says author Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. “So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with Homo longi, and since we don’t know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well.”
The authors suggest their findings may have the potential to rewrite major parts of the human evolution story.
“Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations,” says Ni. “We found our long-lost sister lineage.”
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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