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'Dragon Man,' not Neanderthals, is closest human relative, researchers say

By Brian P.Dunleavy
'Dragon Man,' not Neanderthals, is closest human relative, researchers say
A reconstruction of Dragon Man, or Homo Iongi, in his habitat, which researchers say is likely the sister species of Homo sapiens. Photo by Chuang Zhao

June 25 (UPI) -- A species called Homo Iongi, or "Dragon Man," and not the Neanderthals, may represent the closest relatives to present-day humans, according to a series of studies published Friday by the journal The Innovation.

The finding, based on analysis of a more than 140,000-year-old human skull reportedly found in Harbin City, China, in 1930, has the potential to reshape understanding of human evolution, the researchers said.

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"It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species," one of the researchers, Xijun Ni, said in a press release.

"However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of Homo sapiens -- we found our long-lost sister lineage," said Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University.

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The so-called Harbin skull, the largest of three known skulls of Homo sapiens, or early humans, currently resides at the Geoscience Museum in Hebei GEO University, Ni and his colleagues said.

The massive skull was capable of holding a brain comparable in size to modern humans' but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth.

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"While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously-named Homo species," said another of the researchers, Qiang Ji, in a press release.

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"The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world. This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens." said Ji, a professor of paleontology of Hebei GEO University.

Researchers believe the cranium came from a male individual, approximately 50 years old, living in a forested, floodplain environment as part of a small community.

Like Homo sapiens, the Homo longi hunted mammals and birds, gathered fruits and vegetables, and may have caught fish, according to Ni.

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Given that the Harbin individual was likely very large in size, and given the location where the skull was found, Homo longi may have also adapted to harsh environments, allowing them to disperse throughout Asia.

Using a series of geochemical analyses, the researchers estimated that the Harbin fossil is at least 146,000 years old, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene, a dynamic era of human species migration.

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This means that Homo longi and Homo sapiens may have encountered each other during this era, the researchers said.

The reconstruction of human evolution also suggests that the common ancestor shared with Neanderthals existed even further back in time.

"The divergence time between H. sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed, over one million years," Ni said.

If true, Homo sapiens likely diverged from Neanderthals roughly 400,000 years earlier than scientists had thought, he said.

"We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations co-existing in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time," co-author Chris Stringer said in a press release.

"So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with Homo longi, and since we don't know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well," said Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Nature History Museum in London.

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