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Another species of primitive human discovered in China, the “dragon man”

This fossil could be an ancestor of humans 1:02

(CNN) – A skull hidden at the bottom of a well in northeast China for more than 80 years could belong to a new species of early human that researchers have called “dragon man.”
The exciting discovery is the latest addition to a rapidly growing and changing human family tree, thanks to new fossil finds and analysis of ancient DNA preserved in teeth, bones and cave soil.

The well-preserved skull, found in Harbin City, China, is between 138,000 and 309,000 years old, according to geochemical analysis, and combines primitive features, such as a broad nose and low eyebrows and rib cage, with more similar to Homo sapiens, such as flat and delicate cheekbones.

dragon man

This illustration shows the possible appearance of Homo longi, the dragon man.

The ancient hominin, which the researchers said was “probably” a man in his 50s, would have had an “extremely wide” face, deep eyes with large eye sockets, large teeth and a brain similar in size to modern humans.

Three articles detailing the finding were published this Friday in The Innovation magazine.

‘The Harbin skull is the most important fossil I have seen in 50 years. It shows the importance of East Asia and China in telling human history, ”said Chris Stringer, head of research on human origins at the Natural History Museum in London and a co-author of the research.

The researchers named the new hominin Homo longi, which derives from Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, the province where the skull was found.

The team plans to test whether it is possible to extract ancient proteins or DNA from the skull, which included a tooth, and will begin a more detailed study of the inside of the skull, looking at the sinuses and the shape of the ears and brain, using CT scans.

According to the researchers, the dragonman’s large size could be an adaptation to the harsh environment it likely lived in.

We are family

It’s easy to think that Homo sapiens is unique, but there was a time when we weren’t the only humans on the block.

In the millennia since Homo sapiens emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago, we have shared the planet with Neanderthals, the enigmatic Denisovans, the “hobbit” Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, and Homo naledi, as well as other ancient hominins. . We had sex with some of them and had babies. Some of these ancestors are well represented in the fossil record, but most of what we know about Denisovans comes from the genetic information in our DNA.

The remains of 11 Neanderthals discovered in Italy 1:16

The history of human evolution is constantly changing in an especially exciting period for paleoanthropology, Stringer said.

The announcement of the discovery of the “dragon man” comes a day after another group of researchers published an article in the journal Science about fossils found in Israel that, according to them, could also represent another new type of primitive human.

The jaw bone and skull fragment suggested that a group of people lived in the Middle East 120,000 to 420,000 years ago with more primitive anatomical features than early modern humans and Neanderthals.

Although the team of researchers fell short of qualifying the group as a new hominin species based on the fossil fragments they studied, they said the fossils resembled pre-Neanderthal human populations in Europe and questioned the view that Neanderthals originated. there.

“This is a complicated story, but what we are learning is that the interactions between different human species in the past were much more complicated than we had previously appreciated,” said Rolf Quam, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and co-author. of the study on Israeli fossils, in a press release.

Stringer, who was not involved in the Science research, said the fossils were less complete than the Harbin skull, but that it was definitely plausible that different types of humans coexisted in the Levant, which was a geographical crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. which today includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries.

Fossils IsraelFossils Israel

Two fossils found in Israel challenge the idea that Neanderthals originated in Europe.

A hidden treasure

The Harbin skull was discovered in 1933 by an unidentified Chinese man when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in Harbin, according to one of The Innovation’s studies. At that time, that part of China was under Japanese occupation, and the man who found it took it home and stored it at the bottom of a well for safety.

“Instead of giving the skull to his Japanese boss, he buried it in an abandoned well, a traditional Chinese method of hiding treasures,” according to the study.

After the war, the man returned to farming at a troubled time in Chinese history and never excavated his treasure again. The skull remained unknown to science for decades, surviving the Japanese invasion, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution and, more recently, the rampant fossil trade in China, according to the researchers.

The third generation of the man’s family only found out about his secret discovery before his death and recovered the fossil from the well in 2018. Qiang Ji, one of the authors of the research, learned of the skull and convinced the family to use it. donate it to the Geosciences Museum of Hebei GEO University.

Sibling lineage

According to the study, the so-called “dragon man” belonged to a lineage that could be our closest relative, even more related to us than the Neanderthals. Its large size and the location where the fossil was found, in one of the coldest places in China, could mean that the species had adapted to harsh environments.

The dragonman had a large brain, deep eyes, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and large teeth.

“We are human beings. It is always a fascinating question to know where we came from and how we evolved, ”said co-author Xijun Ni, a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the Key Laboratory for Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins.

“We have found our long-lost brother line.”

The study suggested that other puzzling Chinese fossils difficult for paleoanthropologists to classify, such as those found at Dali in Yunnan in southwestern China and a jaw from the Tibetan plateau, which some consider Denisovan, could belong to the species Homo longi. .

Stringer also said that it was definitely plausible that the dragonman could be a representative of the Denisovans, a little-known and enigmatic human population that has not yet been officially classified as a hominid species by taxonomic standards.

It is named after a Siberian cave in which the only definitive bone fragments of Denisovans have been found, but genetic testing of modern human DNA suggests that they lived throughout Asia.

Denisovans are a general name, Stringer said, and they have not been officially recognized as a new species, in part because the five Denisovan fossils that exist are so small that they do not qualify for a “designated type specimen” that would make it a named representative.

Both Denisovans and Homo longi had large and similar molars, the study noted, but given the small number of fossils available for comparison, it was impossible to tell for sure, said Ni, who hopes DNA experiments will reveal whether they are the same species. .

“We have just begun what will be years of studying this fascinating fossil,” said Stringer.

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