A large skull discovered in China may be from an extremely close kin of modern humans, researchers have revealed.
The previously unknown species of extinct ancient human, dubbed Homo longi or “Dragon Man,” could replace Neanderthals as the nearest relative to modern Homo sapiens, according to the scientists, who published their findings Friday in the journal The Innovation.
The nearly perfectly preserved skull, known as the Harbin cranium, is more than 146,000 years old.
Researchers believe the skull was discovered in 1933 when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in China’s Heilongjiang province, but was only recently studied. It had been wrapped up by a farmer working on the bridge and hidden down an abandoned well. He finally told his grandchildren of its existence on his deathbed in 2018 and they turned it over to a university,
Some Dragon Man’s features notably resemble those of modern man, pointed out one of the authors of the studies on the fossil, Chris Stringer, who is a researcher at London’s Natural History Museum
“It has flat and low cheekbones ... and the face looks reduced and tucked under the brain case,” he said in a statement.
The skull — about 9 inches long and more than 6 inches wide — is also large enough to hold a brain similar in size to that of modern humans. Researchers believe it belonged to a male about 50 years old.
“In terms of fossils in the last million years, this is one of the most important yet discovered,” Stringer told BBC News.
“What you have here is a separate branch of humanity that is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens (our species), but represents a long-separate lineage which evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually went extinct,” Stringer added.
Other scientists aren’t yet certain what position Dragon Man holds on the human family tree — or if he even represents a separate species.
But research lead author Xijun Ni, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang, is convinced: “We found our long-lost sister lineage.”
It’s “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 Homo sapiens,” he explained.
Scientists believe that Dragon Man was powerfully built. But little is known about how he lived, because his skull was removed from the site where it was found. So scientists are unable to search for tools and food linked to Dragon Man that would begin to tell the tale of his life.