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Move Over Neanderthals, Newly Discovered “Dragon Man” May Be Our Closest Relative

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJun 25 2021, 16:00 UTC
Dragon Man.

An artist's impression of Dragon Man in his habitat. Image credit: Chuang Zhao

Scientists may have just found humanity’s closest relative: a newly discovered human species named Homo longi or "Dragon Man."

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The near-perfectly preserved fossil skull was reportedly discovered in the 1930s during the construction of a bridge in the city of Harbin in Heilongjiang province, northeastern China. A fresh look at these remains revealed that it is actually a previously unknown species. Even more remarkably, the archaic hominin appears to be one of our closest hominin relatives, even more closely related to us than Neanderthals. 

The incredible discovery was made by an array of scientific institutes in China, as well as the Natural History Museum, London. Their findings are reported this week in three papers (here, here, and here) published in the Cell Press journal The Innovation.

Homo longi was immense in size, with square-shaped eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, oversized teeth, and a similar brain volume to modern humans. Its nickname “Dragon Man” is a nod to the province it was discovered in, Heilongjiang, which means Black Dragon River. The researchers believe this particular individual was a male, around 50 years old, living in a forested environment as part of a small community.

dragon man
Homo longi, previously known as the Harbin cranium, was discovered in the Black Dragon River region of Heilongjiang, China. Image credit: Mr Wei Gao

However, dating this fossil was especially tough because information about the exact site of its discovery was lost, meaning the researchers couldn’t simply date the fossil layer it was found in. Instead, the researchers used a combination of sophisticated geochemical analyses, including rare earth elements, strontium isotopic ratios, and X-ray fluorescence, and direct uranium, to better understand when this archaic human roamed Earth.

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Their workings showed the fossil lived at least 146,000 years ago. When it comes to human evolution, this was a deeply interesting time. Several species of Homo coexisted in Asia, Europe, and Africa, including Homo sapiens (humans), Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others. It was especially busy in East Asia where several archaic human species mingled. This family tree, however, is not straightforward and is more comparable to a family bramble bush: immensely intertwinedchaotic, and full of gaps.  

Homo longi.
The Homo longi cranium is seen on the far right compared to other East Asian archaic human fossils, including (from L to R) Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, and Dali. Image credit: Kai Geng

Unpicking the relationship between these species can be deeply complicated, but Homo sapiens and Neandtherals are often assumed to be closely related “sibling species”. Some even believe Neanderthals are the same species as us and represent another subspecies. While that might remain true, the researchers believe Homo longi may be even more closely related to us than Neanderthals.

dragon man
Portrait of what Dragon Man may have looked like. Image Credit: Chuang Zhao

Whatever the exact nature of this relationship, it’s clear that “Dragon Man” throws new light on the mysterious backstory of the genus Homo

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“It’s widely believed that the Neanderthals form the sister group of the sapiens lineage. But our analyses suggest that the Harbin cranium and some other Middle Pleistocene human fossils from China form a third East Asian lineage, which is actually closer to sapiens than the Neanderthals are,” Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, said in a statement sent to IFLScience.

“It’s estimated Middle Pleistocene age places it as an Asian contemporary of the evolving H. sapiens, H. neanderthalensis and Denisovan lineages. It may even be a representative of the enigmatic Denisovans, but that is something for the next stages of research.”

 


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