Researchers from China have claimed to have found an ancient human skull that could belong to an altogether new species of humans.
Key Highlights of Dragon Man:
- Dragon Man (Homo longi) is a species of archaic human
- The complete skull found in Heilongjiang province of Northeast China.
- Dating to at minimum 146,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene.
- The skull was discovered in 1933, but, due to a tumultuous political atmosphere, it would not be brought to science until 2018, or named until 2021.
- The describers considered modern humans to be more closely related to H. longi than to the European Neanderthals, which may force a revision of the current scientific consensus.
- H. longi is broadly anatomically similar to other Middle Pleistocene Chinese specimens, and potentially represents the enigmatic Denisovans, though this is unconfirmed. Like other archaic humans, the skull is low and long (the longest of any known human), with massively inflated brow ridges, wide eye sockets, and a large mouth.
- The skull is the largest ever found from any human species. The brain volume is 1,420 cc, within the range of modern humans and Neanderthals.
- The face is flat like in modern humans, but the nose is bulbous, possibly to help breathe cold air. Like other contemporaneous humans, H. longi may have had dark skin, hair, and eye color.
- The skull may have belonged to a male under the age of 50.
Why is this discovery being considered significant?
- It brings new knowledge about the evolution of Homo sapiens — which is to say that if the “Dragon Man” is indeed a new species, it might help to bridge the gaps between our ancient ancestors called Homo erectus and us.
- This knowledge is important because there is very little consensus in the scientific community about how different human species are related, and which species are our immediate ancestors.
- Some palaeontologists believe Homo heidelbergensis to be our immediate ancestors. This species was discovered in 1908, and lived about 700,000 to 200,000 years ago in Europe and possibly China and some parts of Africa.
- There are some other unanswered questions as well — such as whether there was interbreeding among different human species. For instance, it is believed that Neanderthals contributed nearly 1-4 per cent of DNA in non-African modern humans.
Other species of humans
Modern humans are the only human species that exist in the world today. While the exact number of human species is a matter of debate, most scientists believe that there are at least 21 of them, As per the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, there are over 21 human species. These are:
- Sahelanthropus tchadensis: It is believed to be the oldest member of the human family tree.This species lived about 7-6 million years ago somewhere around present day Chad in Africa. Researchers only have cranial material as evidence that this species existed, from which they have deciphered that it had both ape-like and human-like features and was bipedalled, an ability that may have increased its chances of survival.
- Orrorin tugenensis: It lived about 6.2-5.8 million years ago in Eastern Africa this species is the oldest early human on the family tree and members from this species were approximately the size of a chimpanzee.
- Ardipithecus kadabba: lived 5.8-5.2 million years ago, in Eastern Africa. They were bipedalled, and are believed to have had a body size similar to that of modern chimpanzees.
- Ardipithecus ramidus: lived about 4.4 million years ago in Eastern Africa, and was first reported in 1994. It is not clear if this species was bipedalled.
- Australopithecus anamensis: lived about 4.2-3.8 million years ago. A skull belonging to this species was discovered in Ethiopia in 2016 at a palaeontological site. Two studies published in 2019 analysed this skull and determined that it was older than Lucy, the name for another specimen belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis, which was previously thought to be the oldest ancestor of modern humans. The new research also indicated that the two species (Lucy and her ancestors) co-existed for at least 100,000 years.
- Australopithecus afarensis: (members from Lucy’s species) existed 3.85-2.95 million years ago in Africa. Paleontologists have discovered remains from over 300 individuals belonging to this species over the years.
- Kenyanthropus platyops: lived about 3.5 million years ago in Kenya. The Smithsonian Museum notes that the species inhabited Africa at the same time as Lucy’s species did, which could mean that there is a closer branch to modern humans than Lucy’s on the evolutionary tree.
- Australopithecus africanus: lived about 3.3-2.1 million years ago in Southern Africa. This species had a combination of human and ape-like features.
- Paranthropus aethiopicus: lived about 2.7-2.3 million years ago in Eastern Africa and members of this species are defined by their strongly protruding face, large teeth, and a powerful jaw.
- Australopithecus garhi: lived about 2.5 million years ago in Eastern Africa, and is characterised by their long, powerful arms. The Smithsonian museum notes that the arms could mean the longer strides needed during bipedal walking.
- Paranthropus boisei: lived about 2.3-1.2 million years ago in Eastern Africa, and were characterised by a skull that was specialised for heavy chewing.
- Paranthropus robustus: lived about 1.8-1.2 million years ago in Southern Africa and were characterised by their wide, deep-dished faces.
- Australopithecus sediba: lived about 1.9 million years ago in Southern Africa. Members of this species had facial features similar to the later specimens of Homo.
- Homo habilis: lived about 2.4-1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa, and is one of the earliest members of the genus Homo. Members of this species still retained some of the ape-like features, however.
- Homo erectus: lived about 1.89 million-110,000 years ago, in Northern, Eastern, and Southern Africa and Western and East Asia. ‘Turkana Boy’ is the most complete fossil belonging to this species and is dated to be around 1.6 million years old.
- Homo floresiensis: lived around 100,000-50,000 years ago, in Asia. One of the most recently discovered early human species has been nicknamed the “Hobbit”. Specimens have so far only been found on an Indonesian island.
- Homo heidelbergensis: lived about 700,000-200,000 years ago in Europe, some parts of Asia and Africa. As per the Smithsonian museum, this was the first early human species to live in colder climes.
- Homo neanderthalensis: lived about 400,000-40,000 years ago, and co-existed with Homo sapiens for a few thousand years. They lived in Europe and in southwestern and central Asia.
- Homo sapiens: evolved about 300,000 years ago, and are found worldwide.