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"Dragon Man" may be our new closest relative

The largest human skull, the so-called Harbin cranium, sits in collections at a museum in Hebei GEO University in China. Researchers now think that the skull could belong to our nearest relative, “Dragon Man,” replacing Neanderthals in this important position. 

Three papers published by Cell Press in the June 25th issue of the journal Innovation support this position. 

The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world,” said study co-author Professor Qiang Ji. “This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens.”

The fossil is now described as a new species, Homo longi or Dragon Man. The skull was first discovered in the 1930s in China and holds a brain larger than the modern human brain, large squarish eye sockets and large brow ridges. The mouth is wide with large teeth. 

The skull is believed to have belonged to a 50-year-old male that lived in a forested floodplain as part of a small hunter-gatherer community. The individual was almost certainly quite large by modern human standards.  

Using chemical analysis, the researchers dated the skull to 146,000 years old, a time when many Homo sapiens populations were on the move and it’s possible that H. longi may have encountered H. sapiens in the area. It’s an open question whether like Neanderthals, if there may have been hybridization between the two species. 

The paleontologists created a new tree of life for humans, including Dragon Man as our sister group and Neanderthals as a more distant relative that diverged from our lineage further back in time. Only time will tell if further discoveries will complicate or validate this new view of human evolution.     

“It is 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 H. sapiens,” explained study co-author Professor Xijun Ni. 

The new human tree of life also suggests that our common ancestor with Neanderthals existed even further back in time.

“The divergence time between H. sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed, over one million years,” said Professor Ni.

“Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations. We found our long-lost sister lineage.”

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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