The ‘dragon man’ skull encourages rethinking of evolution

An artist’s rendering of “the dragon man”. [Photo/Agencies]

A well-preserved skull, colloquially known as the “dragon man” from China, has made headlines worldwide and has been described as one of the world’s most groundbreaking, significant and exciting scientific discoveries as global institutions review the progress made. in the past year.

Reportedly excavated in 1933, when Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, was under Japanese occupation, the skull was found when a bridge was built over the Songhua River. To secure its storage, the man who found the fossil hid it at the bottom of an abandoned well.

The skull was first brought to light again before the third generation of the anonymous man’s family learned the secret before his death.

Finds that could lead to a rethinking of human evolution have been made since the skull was donated in 2018 to the Geoscience Museum at Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province.

This year, an international research team – of which Ji Qiang, professor of paleontology at Hebei GEO University, was the leading scientist – has classified the skull as belonging to a new species: Homo longi. They believe that the fossil has provided crucial evidence for the study of the origin and evolution of Homo sapiens, the species to which all living people belong.

The team’s results were published in The Innovation magazine in June.

According to a media release from the university that month, a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis by the team found that the Harbin skull and some other East Asian archaic human fossils belong to an evolutionary clad or natural group that has the same last ancestor as Homo sapiens.

It is widely believed that the Neanderthals formed a sister group of the Homo sapiens genus. However, Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was also a member of the team, said, “Our analysis suggests that the Harbin skull and some other inter-Pleistocene human fossils from China form a third East Asian lineage that is actually closer. on H.sapiens than the Neanderthals are. “

CNN has listed “dragon man” as one of this year’s six “most groundbreaking discoveries in human prehistory that shape the family tree in fascinating and unexpected ways”.

The skull “could represent a whole new type of human being,” it said.

The hope is to extract DNA or other genetic material from the fossil to find out more about it, especially whether it may represent Denisovans, an enigmatic human population, CNN reported.

The Public Library of Science, a US-based nonprofit, open-access science, technology and medical publisher, named the results on the skull as one of the seven best discoveries in human evolution in 2021, saying: “The story behind the discovery of this skull is fascinating! “

Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, a famous American museum and research complex, has listed “The Dragon” as one of the 10 most significant science stories of 2021.

“The background story of the skull, which scientists used to suggest was a new species of later Pleistocene humans – to join Homo sapiens and Neanderthals – got a lot of ink,” the magazine said.

However, it also said that the debate over whether the discovery of the “dragon man” justified designation as a new species is likely to continue until more fossils are discovered that help fill the gaps in human evolutionary history.

Ji, the lead scientist for the research team “dragon man”, said he hopes for more discoveries.

At a news conference after the publication of his team’s research, Ji said that as the number of human species dwindled, populations grew larger and larger. As a result, only one human species lives today.

“I look forward to hunting for new human fossils, especially the common ancestor of Homo longi and Homo sapiens in East Asia, and even more so in China, to advance international research on the origins of Homo sapiens,” he said.

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