Move over Neanderthals, ‘Dragon man’ may be humans’ closest relative
Analysis of a fossil found in China in the 1930s could reshape our understanding of human evolution, researchers say.
A newly identified species of ancient hominin may be the closest relative to modern humans ever discovered, a team of international researchers have claimed.
Named Homo longi, or ‘Dragon Man’, the new species was identified from a near-perfectly preserved fossil known as the Harbin cranium that was unearthed in Harbin City in north-eastern China in the 1930s.
Homo longi’s large skull could house a brain similar in size to that of modern humans, but had strikingly larger, almost square eye sockets, heavy, prominent brow ridges, a wide gaping mouth, and large, well-developed teeth.
“The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world,” said author Qiang Ji, a professor of palaeontology of Hebei GEO University, where the fossil is stored.
“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 researchers believe that the cranium belonged to a male who was around 50 years old at the time of their death. They suspect that Homo longi would have lived in small communities in forested environments. As the cranium suggests that the Harbin individual was very large, Homo longi were likely to be well adapted to survive in harsh environments and may well have been successful enough to disperse all over Asia, they say.
Using a series of geochemical analyses, the team dated the Harbin fossil to be at least 146,000 years old, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene. This means they would’ve existed at the same time as Denisovans, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens and may even have interacted with ancient humans.
After hours of painstaking work of piecing together exactly how Homo longi fits into the hominin family tree, the team discovered that it was one of the closest relatives to modern humans ever discoverd.
“I have long suspected that there was a distinct species of human in East Asia, and I was delighted to be invited to study this wonderful fossil that validated the idea. I was surprised by the resulting phylogeny linking it to H. sapiens rather than H. neanderthalensis, but our conclusions are based on the analysis of large amounts of data,” said Prof Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Nature History Museum in London.
“The analyses employed over 600 traits, equally weighted, and many millions of tree-building processes to arrive at the most parsimonious trees. It establishes a third human lineage in East Asia with its own evolutionary history and shows how important the region was for human evolution.”
Their reconstruction of the human tree of life also suggests that the common ancestor we share with Neanderthals existed even further back in time. If true, we likely diverged from Neanderthals roughly 400,000 years earlier than scientists had thought.
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It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species. However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens,” said Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University.
“The divergence time between H. sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed, over one million years.
“Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations. We found our long-lost sister lineage.”
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.