Scientists announced on Friday that a skull discovered in northeast China represents a newly discovered human species known as Homo longi, or ‘Dragon Man,’ and that the lineage should replace Neanderthals as our closest relatives. The Harbin cranium was discovered in the 1930s in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, but was reportedly hidden in a well for 85 years to protect it from the Japanese army.
It was eventually unearthed and handed over to Ji Qiang, a professor at Hebei GEO University, in 2018. ‘According to our findings, the Harbin group is more closely related to H. sapiens than the Neanderthals — that is, Harbin shared a more recent common ancestor with us than the Neanderthals did,’ co-author Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London told.
‘If these are regarded as distinct species, then this is our sister (most closely related) species.’ The findings were published in three papers in the journal The Innovation. The skull dates back at least 146,000 years, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene. It could hold a brain comparable in size to that of modern humans but with larger eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth. ‘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,’ said Ji, a co-author of the study.
The name is derived from Long Jiang, which literally means ‘Dragon River.’ The team believes the cranium belonged to a male, around 50 years old, living in a forested floodplain. ‘This population would have been hunter-gatherers, living off the land,’ said Stringer. ‘From the winter temperatures in Harbin today, it looks like they were coping with even harsher cold than the Neanderthals.’
Given the location of the skull and the large-sized man it suggests, the team believes H. longi was well adapted for harsh environments and could have spread throughout Asia. Researchers first studied the external morphology of the cranium using over 600 traits and then used a computer model to run millions of simulations to build trees of relatedness to other fossils. ‘These findings suggest that Harbin and other Chinese fossils, along with Neanderthals and H. sapiens, form a third lineage of later humans,’ Stringer explained.