A potentially new species of ancient human discovered in China may replace Neanderthals as our closest relative and reshape the understanding of human evolution, according to scientists.
Dubbed Homo longi or “Dragon Man”, the human relative was identified from a skull fossil, known as the Harbin cranium, which was reportedly found in Harbin City in Heilongjiang province in 1933.
The Harbin cranium is thought to be more than 146,000 years old and came from a male aged about 50.
Researchers said the skull was big enough to hold a brain similar in size to a modern human’s.
But they said the Dragon Man would have had comparatively larger eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth.
In their findings, published as three papers in the journal The Innovation, the experts said the fossil suggested Homo longi was closer to modern humans (Homo sapiens) than the Neanderthals and pointed to a new sister lineage.
Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University, and author on two of the papers, 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.”
The researchers believe the Dragon Man lived on a forested floodplain as part of a small community.
They said he, and the ancient Harbin people, would probably have been “very large in size” and capable of adapting to harsh environments.
They hypothesise the Dragon Man’s community would have encountered modern humans during his time, which was “a dynamic era of human species migration”.
Professor Chris Stringer, research leader at the Natural History Museum in London, and an author on two of the papers, said: “We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations co-existing in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time.
“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.”
The researchers said their findings had the potential to rewrite major elements of human evolution and push back the common ancestor modern humans share with Neanderthals even further back in time – roughly 400,000 years earlier than previously thought.
“The divergence time between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed – over one million years,” Professor Ni said.
“Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations.
“We found our long-lost sister lineage.”