View of the backlit mountains in the Gerlache Strait to Cuverville Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images) (Getty Images via CNN)
ATLANTA (CNN) – A skull hidden at the bottom of a well in northeast China for more than 80 years may belong to a new species of primitive human that researchers have called “dragon man.”
This exciting find is the latest addition to a rapidly growing and moving human family tree, thanks to new fossil discoveries and analysis of ancient DNA preserved in teeth, bones and the dirt of the cave.
The well-preserved skullcap, found in the Chinese city of Harbin, is between 138,000 and 309,000 years old, according to geochemical analysis, and it combines primitive features, such as a broad nose and a low forehead and skull, with those more similar to Homo sapiens, including flat, delicate cheekbones.
The former hominid – who the researchers said was “probably” a 50-year-old man – reportedly had an “extremely large” face, deep eyes with large sockets, large teeth and a brain similar in size to the modern humans.
Three documents detailing the discovery were published in The Innovation magazine on Friday.
“The Harbin skull is the most important fossil I have seen in 50 years. It shows how important East Asia and China are in telling human history,” said Chris Stringer, responsible for research on human origins at the Natural History Museum in London and co-author of the research.
The researchers named the new hominin Homo longi, which is derived from Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, the province where the skull was found.
The team plans to see if it is possible to extract ancient proteins or DNA from the skull, which included a tooth, and will begin a more detailed study of the inside of the skull, examining the sinuses and shape. ear and brain, using CT scans.
We are a family
It’s easy to think of Homo sapiens as unique, but there was a time when we weren’t the only humans in the neighborhood.
Over the millennia since the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa around 300,000 years ago, we have shared the planet with Neanderthals, the enigmatic Denisovans, the “Hobbit” Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis and Homo naledi, as well as several other ancient hominids. We had sex with some of them and produces babies. Some of these ancestors are well represented in the fossil record, but most of what we know about the Denisovans comes from genetic information. in our DNA.
The history of human evolution is changing all the time in a particularly exciting time for paleoanthropology, Stringer said.
The announcement of the dragon man discovery comes a day after another group of researchers published an article in the journal Science about fossils found in Israel, which they say may also represent another new type of primitive human.
The jawbone and skull fragment suggest that a group of people lived in the Middle East 120,000-420,000 years ago with more primitive anatomical features than early modern humans and Neanderthals.
While the team of researchers did not call the group a new species of hominid based on the fossil fragments they studied, they did say the fossils resembled pre-Neanderthal human populations in Europe and disputed the idea that Neanderthals originated there.
“It’s a complicated story, but what we’re learning is that the interactions between different human species in the past were much more convoluted than we previously imagined,” Rolf Quam, anthropology professor at Binghamton University and co-author of the Israeli fossil study, said in a press release
Stringer, who was not involved in scientific research, said the fossils were less complete than Harbin’s skull, but it was entirely plausible that different types of humans coexisted in the Levant, which was a geographic crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. which today includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East.
Harbin’s skull was discovered in 1933 by an anonymous Chinese when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in Harbin, according to one of the studies by The Innovation. At the time, this part of China was under Japanese occupation, and the man who found it took it home and stored it at the bottom of a well to keep it safe.
“Instead of passing the skull to his Japanese boss, he buried it in an abandoned well, a traditional Chinese method of concealing treasures,” according to the study.
After the war, man returned to agriculture during a tumultuous period in Chinese history and never unearthed his treasure. The skull has remained unknown to science for decades, surviving the Japanese invasion, the Civil War, the Cultural Revolution and, more recently, the rampant commercial trade in fossils in China, the researchers said.
The third generation of the man’s family only learned of his secret discovery before his death and recovered the fossil from the well in 2018. Qiang Ji, one of the authors of the research, heard about the skull and convinced the family to donate it to the Hebei University Geoscience Museum GEO.
According to the study, the so-called dragon man likely belonged to a lineage that may be our closest relatives, even more closely related to us than Neanderthals. Its large size and where the fossil was found, in one of the coldest places in China, could mean the species has adapted to harsh environments.
“We are human beings. It is always a fascinating question where we came from and how we evolved,” said co-author Xijun Ni, a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and vice-president. Director of the Key Laboratory for the Evolution of Vertebrates and Man. Origins.
“We have found our long lost sister line.”
The study suggested other puzzling Chinese fossils that paleoanthropologists have struggled to classify – such as those found at Dali in Yunnan in southwest China and a jawbone from the Tibetan Plateau, considered by some to be being from Denisovan – could belong to the species Homo longi.
Stringer also said it was entirely plausible that the dragon man could be a representative of the Denisovans, a little-known and enigmatic human population that has yet to be officially classified as a hominid species according to taxonomic rules.
They are named after a Siberian cave where the only definitive Denisovan bone fragments were found, but genetic evidence modern human DNA suggests that they once lived all over Asia.
Denisovans are a general name, Stringer said, and they have not been officially recognized as a new species – in part because the five Denisovan fossils that exist are so small that they do not meet the requirements for a “designated type specimen” which would make him a representative who bears his name.
The Denisovans and Homo longi both had similar large molars, the study noted, but given the small number of fossils available for comparison, it was impossible to say for sure, said Ni, who hoped. that DNA experiments might reveal if they are the same. species.
“We have just started what will be years of study of this fascinating fossil,” Stringer said.
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