The science of human evolution has just got more complicated.
A team of Chinese-led scientists claims to have discovered a previously unknown ‘sister species’ that would have been alive at the same time as the Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens.
Homo longi, or ‘Dragon man’, as this newly identified species is known, is thought to have lived some 150,000 to 300,000 years ago in Northeast Asia.
His brain was big, he lacked the protruding jaw of the Neanderthals, and he lived a relatively long life to about 50 – suggesting that he ate well and lived in a community.
The theory of the sister species is based on a study of a single, well- preserved skull found in the Harbin area. The Chinese scientists believe that the fossil proves the existence of a species that was closer to modern-day humans in evolutionary terms than the Neanderthals.
“It is widely believed that the Neanderthals belong 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,” Ni Xijun, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences explained in an announcement about the new finding.
The theory is that Homo longi split from the lineage that later became Homo sapiens or modern humans after the Neanderthals had already broken off from the same line some 600,000 years ago.
“What you have here is a separate branch of humanity that is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens, but represents a long-separate lineage which evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually went extinct,” Professor Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum – and another member of the skull research team – told the BBC.
The view that Homo longi is a separate species is controversial. Other palaeontologists think the skull is probably Denisovan – a little-understood sub-species of hominin, previously identified from tiny bone fragments found in Siberia and Tibet.
Making the matter more complicated is that it was exhumed over 90 years ago and hidden in a well – meaning that the scientists lack crucial information that comes with finding a fossil “in situ”.
The skull was unearthed by a labourer in 1933. Northeastern China was under Japanese occupation at the time and the man chose to hide his discovery rather than hand it over to the Japanese authorities. For decades he said nothing. But shortly before his death in 2018 he told his children about the skull, which they retrieved and handed to the GEO University in Hebei.
If the scientists are right and they have discovered a new species of archaic human it would add to the rich story of human evolution in which the forbears of modern humans met and even interbred with now extinct species such as the Neanderthals.
“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,” says Stringer, the British paleoanthropologist.
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