Dragon Man Discovery Rewrites Evolutionary History

The ‘Dragon Man’ skull uncovered by researchers from China could be a new species more closely related to modern humans than Neanderthals.

AsianScientist (Jun. 28, 2021) – A near-perfectly preserved ancient skull found in Harbin, China could represent a new human species called Homo longi, or ‘Dragon Man.’ The findings, described across three papers in The Innovation, suggest that H. longi may be our closest relatives—displacing the Neanderthals and reshaping our understanding of human evolution.

With a backstory seemingly straight out of an Indiana Jones film, the fossil was initially discovered in the 1930s by a Chinese laborer building a bridge over Harbin’s Songhua River at the height of the Japanese occupation.

To keep it from falling into Japanese hands, the laborer wrapped the skull and hid it in an abandoned well—literally becoming buried treasure. It was only around 90 years later in 2018 that the fossil was unearthed once again, after the bridge builder revealed the skull’s secret to his grandchildren while on his deathbed.

Though the skull could hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans, the team led by Professor Ji Qiang of the Hebei GEO University (HGU) found that it had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth.

“While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin skull presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously-named Homo species,” said Ji, leading the team to propose the fossil as a new species called H. longi—with ‘long’ meaning dragon in Mandarin.

Using geochemical analyses, the researchers dated the Harbin skull to at least 146,000 years ago, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene—a dynamic era of large-scale early human migration. During this period, H. longi and H. sapiens could have encountered each other, hypothesized the team.

The team believes that the skull came from a male individual around 50 years old who lived in a forested, flood plain environment as part of a small community. Much like H. sapiens, these early hominids were also likely hunter-gatherers. Given the exceptionally large size of the Dragon Man fossil and where it was discovered, they suggest that the H. longi may have been well-adapted for life in harsh environments, allowing them to migrate across Asia.

To work out H. longi’s place on the human evolutionary tree, co-author Professor Ni Xijun from HGU and the Chinese Academy of Sciences built a model with over 600 data points from the skull, including length, brow size and the presence or absence of wisdom teeth. By comparing the Harbin fossil’s traits with 95 other skulls, the model revealed that H. longi belonged to a cluster more closely related to modern humans than Neanderthals.

Taken altogether, the team’s findings could potentially rewrite the unfolding tale of human evolution. A glimpse into the life of the Dragon Man through his skull reveals that H. longi was a strong, robust human species whose interactions with our H. sapiens ancestors may have shaped our own history in still-unknown ways.

“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 H. longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens,” said Ni.

“Altogether, the Harbin skull provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations,” added Ni. “We found our long-lost sister lineage.”

The articles can be found at:

Shao et al. (2021) Geochemical provenancing and direct dating of the Harbin archaic human cranium.

Ji et al. (2021) Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species.

Ni et al. (2021) Massive cranium from Harbin in northeastern China establishes a new Middle Pleistocene human lineage.


Source: Hebei GEO University; Photo: Zhao Chuang.
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