‘Dragon Man’ cranium might assist oust Neandertals as our closest relative

A fossil cranium nicknamed “Dragon Man” has surfaced in China beneath mysterious circumstances, with massive information for Neandertals. Dragon Man belonged to a beforehand unrecognized Stone Age species that replaces Neandertals because the closest identified kin of individuals right this moment, researchers say.

A virtually full male cranium now housed within the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO College in Shijiazhuang, China, represents a species dubbed Homo longi by Hebei GEO paleoanthropologist Xijun Ni and his colleagues. The scientists describe the cranium, which dates to no less than 146,000 years in the past, and analyze its place in Homo evolution in three papers printed June 25 in The Innovation.

Qiang Ji, a paleontologist additionally at Hebei GEO, obtained the cranium in 2018 from a farmer who mentioned the fossil had been dug up by a coworker of his grandfather’s in 1933. Throughout bridge development over a river in Harbin, China, the employee allegedly scooped the cranium out of river sediment. Whether or not or not that story is true, this fossil may assist reply questions on a poorly understood interval of human evolution.

“The Harbin skull presents a mix of options setting it aside from different Homo species,” Ji says. The identify H. longi derives from a Chinese language time period for the province the place it was discovered, which interprets as “dragon river.” That time period impressed the nickname Dragon Man.

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As in H. sapiens, the Harbin cranium held a big mind located atop a comparatively brief face and small cheek bones. However traits similar to a protracted, low braincase, thick forehead ridges, massive molars and nearly sq. eye sockets recall a number of extinct Homo populations or species, together with Neandertals and H. heidelbergensis (SN: 4/1/20). These species date to a key interval of Homo evolution referred to as the Center Pleistocene, which ran from about 789,000 to 130,000 years in the past.

Measures of the decay of radioactive uranium within the Harbin cranium offered its minimal age estimate of 146,000 years. Chemical analyses of the fossil and sediment nonetheless hooked up to it point out an origin within the Harbin space, even when the researchers can’t affirm the farmer’s story to Ji.

An artist’s reconstruction exhibits an grownup male, based mostly on a virtually full fossil cranium, who belonged to a newly proposed Homo species that lived no less than 146,000 years in the past in what’s now northern China.Chuang Zhao

The researchers estimated Dragon Man’s evolutionary standing utilizing statistical comparisons to different Center Pleistocene Homo fossils from Africa, Asia and Europe. These comparisons indicated that H. longi shared a typical ancestor with H. sapiens round 949,000 years in the past, whereas the widespread ancestor of Neandertals and H. sapiens dated to only over 1 million years in the past. In that case, then H. longi had a barely nearer evolutionary relationship to H. sapiens than Neandertals did.

Ni’s staff concludes that H. longi was a up to date of evolving Asian traces of H. sapiens, Neandertals and Denisovans, a inhabitants identified primarily from historical DNA (SN: 12/16/19). The Harbin cranium most carefully resembles a number of different Center Pleistocene Homo fossils from Chinese language websites, the researchers say. A few of these finds are actually considered Denisovans (SN: 10/29/20).

Makes an attempt might be made to extract DNA from and determine the protein construction of the Harbin cranium for comparability to Denisovans, says Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist on the Pure Historical past Museum in London and a member of Ni’s staff (SN: 5/1/19).

Analyses of the geographic distribution of varied skeletal traits in Center Pleistocene Homo fossils point out that comparatively small teams from varied species and populations traveled inside Africa, Asia and Europe, generally interbreeding. Ni’s staff suspects that teams based mostly in southern areas, the place they may survive during times of utmost chilly, ventured farther when temperatures warmed. Treks have been made forwards and backwards throughout continents, most frequently from Africa to Asia, the investigators say. Some teams died out alongside the way in which, whereas others finally handed on genes and skeletal traits over nice distances, they think.

That state of affairs appears possible, particularly given the stunning mixture of options on the Harbin cranium, says paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of Eberhard Karls College of Tübingen in Germany, who didn’t take part within the new research.

Homo teams incessantly traversed what’s now northern China as temperatures warmed and wet durations fluctuated after round 300,000 years in the past, says paleoanthropologist Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M College in School Station, who additionally was not concerned within the new research.  However she argues that the Harbin cranium appears very similar to a number of different Center Pleistocene Homo fossils from northern China and shouldn’t be labeled as a brand new species.

Historic Homo teams on the transfer developed distinctive options during times of isolation and shared options during times of contact and mating, she proposes. Intermittent connections throughout huge areas created carefully associated populations that inherited various units of traits. The Harbin cranium and newly described Israeli fossils, labeled solely as Nesher Ramla Homo, show anatomical variations on a Center Pleistocene Homo theme, Athreya says (SN: 6/24/21).

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