Scientists Identify New Human Species That Is the Closest Ever to Us

The news about the 'Dragon man' came just days after another ancient human species discovery.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Dragon man, reconstructed.Chuang Zhao

A newly-discovered ancient human fossil known as the Harbin cranium could offer new insight into our evolution and it now sits in the Geoscience Museum in Hebei GEO University. It represents a never-before-seen human species named Homo longi or "Dragon Man" that may be our closest relatives yet.

Just days ago, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified a new lineage which they dubbed "Nesher Ramla Homo type." 

"The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world," said in a statement author Qiang Ji, a professor of paleontology of Hebei GEO University. "This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens."

Perhaps what is even more impressive than the skull's discovery is its story. It was first spotted by a Chinese man in 1933 in Harbin City, in Heilongjiang, China's northernmost province. The man was a labor contractor for the Japanese invaders and did not want to turn over the skull to his Japanese superior.

A bittersweet journey of discovery

To hide it, he buried it in an abandoned well where it remained for 85 years. Only before he died, did he tell his family about the important relic. They in turn found the skull in 2018 and later donated it to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University.

The first thing the researchers noticed was that the massive skull was noteworthy due to its ability to hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans. However, it was also quite different to today's human skulls "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," explained Ji.

This image shows comparisons among Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, Dali, and Harbin crania (from left to right) Source: Kai Geng

The scientists speculate that the skull belonged to a 50-year-old man but have not identified the cause of death yet. They further believe that the man and his tribe must have lived like the Homo sapiens. "Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, and gathered fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even caught fish," remarked author Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. 

The team of researchers dated the Harbin fossil to at least 146,000 years, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene, and also found that Homo longi is one of our closest hominin relatives, even more closely related to us than the Neanderthals. "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," concluded Ni.