Dragon man skull daze, digging doubts about human evolution

Illustration of a dragon man in the house.

Chuang Chao

Perhaps one of the key pieces in the mystery of our long narrative arc is as humankind has been hiding at the bottom of a well in China for nearly a century. But now the ancient, nearly intact skull of what might be our closest extinct relative – nicknamed the Dragon Man – is largely in the public eye as a subject of intense scientific intrigue and debate.

The story goes that a worker at a bridge construction site in the Chinese city of Harbin dug up the skull in 1933, but hid it in a well to prevent it from falling into the hands of the occupying Japanese army. Its existence was only revealed by the worker’s family in recent years and it was donated to Hebei Geo University for study.

The worker’s hunch that the skull could be important turned out to be correct.

“The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world,” Qiang Ji, professor of palaeontology at Hebei Geo University and author of a study on the skull, says in a statement. “This fossil has preserved many details … which are crucial to understanding the evolution of Homo sapiens and the origin of Homo sapiens.”

Harbin skull is the real big chest of skulls for the human race. It’s a huge dome with room for a modern human brain but with larger and somewhat square eye sockets, a wide mouth and oversized teeth.

Scientists including Ji believe the skull, which is believed to have come from a male who lived about 50 years old, is a specimen of a previously unidentified human species called Homo Longi or “Dragon Man”. Three papers from the researchers were published Friday in a journal called The Innovation and made a provocative suggestion that we are closely related to dragons, or at least to Dragon Man and Dragon Woman.

“Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, gathered fruits and vegetables, and probably even caught fish,” notes co-author Xijun Ni, professor of palaeontology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei Jiu University.

A virtual reconstruction of the Dragon Man’s skull.

shijun ne

Geochemical dating places the skull at 146,000 years old or more, an era when human species were moving along with woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos and possibly giant beavers. It’s also possible that Dragon Man and his clan came across Homo sapiens earlier.

“Altogether, Harbin’s skull provides more clues for us to understand to turn down “Diversity and evolutionary relationships,” Ni says. “We found our long-lost sister lineage.”

However, not all scientists – not even all members of the research team – agree on how new the species is, in fact.

“Harbin is better understood as a Denisovan,” paleoanthropologist Karen Babb, who was not involved in the research, told the New York Times.

Denisovans were an ancient hominin that is believed to have roamed roughly the same area during the same period. But scientists base their knowledge of these extinct people on some DNA and very little remains, and certainly nothing as quintessential as a dragon man’s skull.

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Skull comparisons between Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, Dali and Harbin samples (from left to right).

Kai Jing

So it may be, as Babb and others believe, that the Dragon Man’s skull is really the first glimpse we get from a Denisovan’s profile.

Chris Stringer of the National History Museum in London, who was part of the research team, says he agrees that Dragon Man deserves a distinct name for the species, but thinks the skull may also be related to the famous Dali Man skull, also found in China.

“I prefer to put Harbin and Dali fossils together as (Homo) dalensis,” Stringer writes. “I also consider Harbin to be a likely Denisovan, although more work is needed there.

Although few unanimously agreed on the specific interpretation of what it means for the Dragon Man to debut, Stringer speaks on behalf of many other scholars who agree it’s a big deal.

“These differences of opinion should not deviate from a fascinating new piece in the jigsaw of human evolution, a fossil that will continue to add important information for many years to come,” Stringer says.

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