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'Dragon man' cranium could help uncover Homo sapiens' origin

By Hou Liqiang in Beijing and Zhang Yu in Shijiazhuang | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-27 16:54
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An international team with a university in North China's Hebei province has found a new species of early human that could help figure out the origin and evolution of Homo sapiens, the species all living human beings belong to.

The researchers officially named a cranium unearthed over 85 years ago in Northeast China as "Homo longi sp nov", and also nicknamed it, "dragon man".

The announcement was made based on research results of the cranium, which is at least 138,000 years old and was allegedly unearthed in 1933 when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

The fossil was donated in 2018 to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University, which is based in Hebei’s provincial capital, Shijiazhuang.

The research team used sophisticated geochemical analyses, including rare earth elements, strontium isotopic ratios and X-ray fluorescence, and direct uranium series dating on the Harbin cranium, according to a media release from the university on Saturday.

According to studies published by the team, the Harbin cranium is undistorted and almost intact, with the main losses being all but one tooth, and slight damage to the left zygomatic arch.

Because of its unsystematic recovery at that time and longtime interval, the information about the exact fossil site and fossil-bearing layer was lost.

"Although it is impossible to pin the cranium to an exact location with currently available technology, all the evidence suggests that it was from a bed of lacustrine sediments aged between 138,000 and 309,000 years ago in the Harbin region", said Ge Junyi, one of the members of the research team and a geochemist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Shao Qingfeng, another team member and a geochemist from Nanjing Normal University, said they are very confident that the fossil cranium is older than 146,000 years.

"The Harbin cranium is huge, showing either the largest or second largest values for many measurements in our comparative fossil database, and its brain size at 1,420 milliliters matches that of modern humans," said Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist from the Natural History Museum in London, and also a member with the team.

"It also shows other features resembling our species. It has flat and low cheekbones with a shallow canine fossa, and the face looks reduced and tucked under the brain-case," Stringer was quoted as saying in the media release.

The comprehensive phylogenetic analyses of the research team reveal that the Harbin cranium and some other Eastern Asian archaic human fossils belong to an evolutionary clade that shares the same last ancestor with Homo sapiens.

Stringer said it is widely believed Neanderthals form the sister group of the Homo sapiens lineage. "But our analyses suggest that the Harbin cranium and some other Middle Pleistocene human fossils from China form a third East Asian lineage, which is actually closer to H. sapiens than the Neanderthals are."

The excellent preservation of the Harbin cranium throws new light on the evolution of the genus Homo, he added.

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