New Scientist looks at a possible new addition to the human family tree, an early human skull found in Harbin, China, and tentatively named Homo longi (from the Chinese long, meaning “dragon”)… though it might belong to an early human we already know a little bit about:
The Harbin cranium was discovered in mysterious circumstances in Harbin City in the Heilongjiang province of China in the 1930s. The man who unearthed it reportedly hid it in a well, only revealing its location on his deathbed. It was recovered in 2018 and has now been analysed for the first time.
“This is the biggest human skull I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a few,” says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum, London, who was also a member of the team.
The researchers estimate that the skull belonged to a man who was about 50 years old when he died, between 146,000 and 296,000 years ago. Its features are a mix of those seen in archaic and modern humans. It has thick brow ridges, for example, yet “the face looks so much like a bigger version of a modern human face”, says Stringer. Its brain size was similar to ours too.
One possibility is that the Harbin fossil is a Denisovan. This mysterious group of extinct humans was first identified a decade ago from DNA in a finger bone found in the Denisova cave in Siberia, Russia. The Denisovans were closely related to the Neanderthals, and lived in Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. They also interbred with H. sapiens.
A few additional Denisovan fossils been identified in recent years, including a jawbone at least 160,000 years old from Tibet, known as the Xiahe mandible. But Denisovan skulls have proved more difficult to track down: the Harbin cranium may be one of the strongest candidates yet found, bringing us closer to our first definitive glimpse of a Denisovan face.
When a team led by [Chinese Academy of Sciences paleomammologist Xijun] Ni constructed a family tree to establish the ancestral lineage of the Harbin fossil, based on physical characteristics of the fossils, they found that it was most closely related to the Xiahe mandible. Interestingly, both of these fossils have massive teeth.
Many researchers prefer not to name new human species for several reasons, including the fact that DNA evidence shows that “species”, including Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, interbred. Most academics prefer to refer to the Denisovans as a “group” or “lineage” rather than a distinct species.