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Emerging after decades, China’s Dragon Man claims to be man’s closest relative

A reconstruction of the Dragon Man in his habitat (Pic: Courtesy nbcnews.com)

The skull which was discovered years ago in 1930s and remained unrecognised, unheard and unheralded, has finally spoken and announced its arrival with a bang! Sounds strange but the “Dragon Man” has emerged to claim being human beings closest relative.

Announcing this on June 25, scientists stated that Dragon Man or Homo longi, may potentially alter the way in which human evolution is studied and understood.

A report appearing in nbcnews.com said that the findings that appeared in the form of three papers in the journal The Innovation, stated that Homo longi could replace Neanderthals as the closest relative to our own species, Homo sapiens. This find of a new species is based and linked with the skull which has been known as the Harbin cranium – a fossil which is said to have been discovered decades earlier but has been put under scanner only recently.

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Talking to the Associated Press, Xijun Ni, Professor of Primatology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University, said: “It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species.  However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of Homo sapiens."

Xijun Ni is the author of two of the three papers published in The Innovation.

In a Press release issued by London’s Natural History Museum, Chris Stringer, who works as a research leader in the Museum, observed that the Harbin cranium "also shows other features resembling our species”. Stringer who is also one of the authors of these papers added: "It has flat and low cheekbones with a shallow canine fossa, and the face looks reduced and tucked under the brain case.”

According to the study conducted by an international team led by Qiang Ji, Professor at China’s Hebei Geo University, the name “Dragon Man” was derived from the geographic name Long Jiang.

Long Jiang, in common parlance, is used for the Heilongjiang province and it literally means “dragon river”.

Researchers are of the opinion that the skull belongs to a male who is aged about 50. The dimensions of the skull is that it is about 9 inches long and more than 6 inches wide and thus big enough to hold a brain that is similar in size to that of a modern human — around 3 pounds (1,420 ml) in brain volume.

The cranium is thought to have been discovered in 1933 when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in Harbin City, in China’s Heilongjiang province, the study said, adding that information about the exact site was lost because of its "long and confused history."

An article in the National Geographic states that when a team of locals was raising a bridge near Harbin, located in China’s northernmost province, one worker stumbled on a surprise in the river mud. It was a nearly complete human skull, which had an elongated cranium from which a heavy brow bone protruded, shading the gaping squares that once housed eyes.

It is conjectured that maybe the man, aware of the significance of the find, hid it away in an abandoned well. Before his death, he revealed this secret to his grandchildren, who retrieved it in 2018. Palaeontologist Qiang Ji from China’s Hebei GEO University of China who led the new research, came to know about it, and took a look at the skull. Unable to decide, he took a picture and showed it to Ni.

"I was shocked," Ni recalled for National Geographic.

The fossil was remarkably well preserved and a mix of features. It was squat and wide, with a prominent brow common among ancient hominins. There was only one tooth in the jawless cranium and it had three roots — a rare trait among modern humans. Other attributes namely delicate cheekbones, sitting flat and low on the face, were more reminiscent of our own species.

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Persuading the family to donate the skull to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University, the team got to work.

Junyi Ge, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of the study’s team members, said they were “quite confident” that it was more than 146,000 years old.

Although it has been described by the research team as a new species, in a separate interview with the U.K.’s Press Association, Stringer said he agreed that the skull bore a resemblance to another fossil belonging to Homo daliensis, another type of ancient human.

“Regardless of that, the morphology of the fossil is very informative about later human evolution," he added.

The findings were announced hours after scientists said they had discovered a new kind of early human after studying pieces of fossilized bone dug up at a site used by a cement plant in central Israel.

Nesher Ramla Homo — named after the place southeast of Tel Aviv where it was found — may have lived alongside our species, Homo sapiens, for more than 100,000 years, and may have even interbred, researchers said.