New "Dragon Man" human species may be our closest relative
Anthropologists have discovered a new species of human, known from a single fossil skull. Named Homo longi, or “Dragon Man,” the species appears to be our closest known relative, pipping even Neanderthals.
The skull is known as the Harbin cranium, after the Chinese city where it was discovered in 1933. However, it was kept in private hands until 2017, when it was donated to scientists at Hebei GEO University. It was originally attributed to the related species Homo heidelbergensis, but on closer examination the team found enough differences to proclaim it a completely new species.
The Harbin cranium is the largest skull ever found from any human species, with a brain case accommodating a similar-sized brain to ours. But compared to us, its eye sockets were larger and more angular, the mouth was wider and the teeth bigger, and the brow ridges were thick and pronounced.
"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,” says Qiang Li, an author of the study.
As such, they proposed the new name Homo longi, after the Long Jiang province where Harbin City is located. Long Jiang translates to “dragon river,” hence the Dragon Man nickname.
The researchers say that the skull most likely came from a male aged about 50 years old, who appeared to have lived with a small group in a forested floodplain environment.
Geochemical analyses revealed that the fossil is at least 146,000 years old, which puts it at the height of human migration through the Old World. Prior fossil evidence suggests modern humans had journeyed to Greece by 210,000 years ago, and Israel by 177,000 years ago. That means there’s a chance that our ancestors met, interacted and (knowing us) interbred with Homo longi in China.
"We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations co-existing in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time. So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with H. longi, and since we don't know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well," says Chris Stringer, an author of the study.
Genetic analysis also revealed that Homo longi is likely the closest relative to modern humans that we know of, with the team calling them our “long-lost sister lineage.” That means they steal the crown from Neanderthals – who, it now turns out, may be more distant relatives than we realized.
The timeline for when modern humans and Neanderthals split off from each other is widely contested, with a huge range of estimates spanning anywhere from 250,000 to 800,000 years ago. The team says that the discovery of Homo longi pushes back the time of this split, possibly to more than a million years ago.
"Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations," says Xijun Ni, an author of the study.