A skull in China would belong to a new human species

Photo: Xijun Ni et al.

An ancient skull, hidden by a family for nearly 90 years, could be the key to helping researchers identify a new human species. The skull was donated to a university museum just three years ago and the results of a careful analysis have just been revealed. This incredible fossil is actually part of a new human group known as the Homo longi or “Dragon Man” and, according to researchers, is our closest known relative.

That’s right, the Dragon Man is an even closer relative than the Neanderthals or homo erectus, according to a study published in Innovation. This is massive news that will change what we know about human evolution. “In terms of fossils from the last million years, this is one of the largest ever discovered,” says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who was part of the research team. “What you have here is a separate branch of humanity which is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens, but represents a long, separate lineage that evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually became extinct.

Render of the dragon man

Photo: Xijun Ni et al.

One of the most complete early human skull fossils ever found, researchers in China were delighted with the amount of detail they could see. The skull tells us that the dragon man had a thick browbone, square eye sockets, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth. The skull itself is also quite large compared to other human species, although the brain is about the size of ours. Professor Qiang Ji of Hebei Geo University calls it “a mosaic combination of primitive and more modern features, distinct from all other human species.”

And what’s as remarkable as this news is how exactly the skull was discovered and what kept it hidden for so long. Construction workers found the skull in 1933 while working on the Songhua River in Harbin. This translates to Black Dragon River, hence the name Dragon Man. At the time, this part of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, was under Japanese occupation. To keep the skull out of Japanese hands, one of the workers smuggled it home and hid it in a family well for over 80 years. It wasn’t until his deathbed in 2018 that he revealed the story to his grandson, who then took the precious artifact to a museum.

While it may seem incredible that we are just discovering a fossil of this magnitude, excavations in China have not been as extensive as in other regions like Africa. This means that there will certainly be other hidden treasures just begging to be discovered.

h / t: [BBC, The Guardian]

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