Scientists identify new hominid species Homo longi, or “Dragon man”

The announcement of a new hominid species Homo longi, possibly a parallel and contemporaneous species of Homo sapiens, has made the story of human evolution even more complex.

The lead scientists were from the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, Chinese Academy of Sciences Professor Xijun Ni, Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang Professor Qiang Ji in China, along with an international team of scientists in the United Kingdom and Australia.

They published their findings on June 25 in the open access journal The Innovation , under the headline “Massive cranium from Harbin in northeastern China establishes a new Middle Pleistocene human lineage,” along with two other articles, “Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species” and “Geochemical provenancing and direct dating of the Harbin archaic human cranium.”

The designation of a new species was made from a rare near-complete hominid skull in China with a remarkable history of discovery. The skull was originally found on a riverbank approximately 90 years ago by a Chinese man building a bridge across the Songhua River in Harbin near the North Korean border, when the area was under Japanese occupation. The Chinese man, an indentured labourer, hid the skull in a well and only revealed its location on his deathbed to his grandchildren. Unfortunately, he did not disclose the exact location of his find. This meant that the scientists were not able to find supplementary evidence from the skull’s geological surrounds. It is remarkable that the skull was rediscovered at all so a scientific analysis could take place.

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Map shows the location where the skull of Homo Longi was found (Credit: The Innovation)

“We found our long-lost sister lineage. I said, ‘oh, my gosh!’ I could not believe that it was so well preserved. You can see all the details. It is a really amazing find!” Professor Ni told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The skull is rather large, 23 centimetres long and more than 15 centimetres wide and with a braincase capacity of 1,420 millilitres, a volume comparable to modern humans. H. longi has almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. Only one molar was found intact. The individual is considered to have been fairly large and was about 50 years old.

“Homo longi is heavily built, very robust. It is hard to estimate the height, but the massive head should match a height higher than the average of modern humans,” said Ni.

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The Harbin cranium in standard views (Credit: The Innovation)

Dating using strontium isotopes found in sediment deposits in the nasal cavity came up with an age between 138,000 and 309,000 years. Radioactive uranium dating established a minimum age of 146,000 years.

“Because of a long, difficult and confused history since the discovery, the information about the exact geographic origin and stratigraphical context of the cranium has been lost, impeding its accurate dating,” stated Key Laboratory of Virtual Geographic Environment Qingfeng Shao, a fellow researcher.