The discovery of a huge fossilized skull that was enveloped and hidden in a Chinese well almost 90 years ago has forced scientists to rewrite the history of human evolution.
Analysis of the remains revealed a new branch of the human family tree that points to a previously unknown sister group more closely related to modern humans than Neanderthals.
The extraordinary fossil has been named a new human species, Homo longi or “dragon man,” by Chinese researchers, although other experts are more cautious about this designation.
“I think this is one of the most important discoveries of the past 50 years,” said Professor Chris Stringer, head of research at the Natural History Museum in London, who worked on the project. “It is a wonderfully preserved fossil.
The skull seems to have a remarkable history. According to researchers, it was discovered in 1933 by Chinese workers building a bridge over the Songhua River in Harbin, in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, during the Japanese occupation. To prevent the skull from falling into Japanese hands, it was wrapped and hidden in an abandoned well, not resurfacing until 2018 after the man who hid it told his little grandson about it. time before his death.
An international team led by Professor Qiang Ji of Hebei Geo University in China relied on geochemical techniques to refine the research when the skull came to rest in Harbin, dating back at least 146,000 years. The skull exhibits a unique combination of primitive and more modern features, with the face in particular more resembling Homo sapiens. There is a huge molar left.
The skull, which is 23 cm long and over 15 cm wide, is significantly larger than that of a modern human and has enough room, at 1,420 ml, for a modern human brain. Below the thick brow bone, the face has large square eye sockets, but it is delicate despite its size. “This guy had a huge head,” Stringer said.
Researchers believe the skull belonged to a man of around 50, who would have been an impressive physical specimen. Its large, bulbous nose allowed it to breathe enormous volumes of air, indicating a high-energy lifestyle, while its size is said to have helped it withstand the region’s brutally cold winters. “Homo longi is strongly built, very robust,” said Professor Xijun Ni, a paleoanthropologist at Hebei. “It is difficult to estimate the height, but the massive head should correspond to a height higher than the average of modern humans.”
To determine where the Harbin individual fits in human history, scientists entered measurements of the fossil and 95 other skulls into software that compiled the most likely family tree. To their surprise, Harbin’s skull and a handful of others from China have formed a new branch closer to modern humans than to Neanderthals.
Chinese researchers believe Harbin’s skull is distinct enough to make it a new species, but Stringer is not convinced. He thinks it is similar to one found in Dali County in China in 1978.
“I prefer to call it Homo daliensis, but that’s okay,” he said. “Important is the third line of later humans who are separated from Neanderthals and separated from Homo sapiens.” Details are published in Three papers in Innovation.
Whatever its name, one possibility is that Harbin’s skull is Denisovan, a mysterious group of extinct humans known in large part from fragments of DNA and bones recovered in Siberia. “Certainly, this specimen could be Denisovan but we have to be careful. What we need is much more complete skeletal material from Denisovans alongside DNA, ”Stringer said.
Professor John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the idea of a new human line was “a provocative statement” because skulls can look alike even among distant relatives. The skull being Denisovan was a good guess, he added, although he was less inclined to a new species name. “I think it’s a bad time for science to name new species among these big-brained humans who have all crossed paths,” he said. “What we find over and over is that the differences in appearance didn’t mean much to these ancient peoples when it came to reproduction.”
Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science at UCL and author of The cradle of humanity, said, “The beautifully preserved archaic Chinese human skull from Harbin adds even more evidence that human evolution was not a simple evolutionary tree but a dense intertwined bush. We now know that there were as many as 10 different species of hominids at the same time our own species emerged.
“Genetic analysis shows that these species have interacted and crossed each other – our own genetics contain the inheritance of many of these ghost species. But what’s sobering is that despite all this diversity, a new version of Homo sapiens emerged from Africa around 60,000 years ago that clearly outperformed, surpassed and even beaten these others. closely related species, causing their extinction. It is only by researching and thoroughly analyzing their fossils, like the Harbin skull, that we know of their existence.