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26 Jun, 2021 01:58

Ancient 140K-year-old ‘Dragon Man’ skull found hidden in Chinese well where it languished, abandoned, for decades

Ancient 140K-year-old ‘Dragon Man’ skull found hidden in Chinese well where it languished, abandoned, for decades

If legitimate, the new species, dubbed Homo longi, would be the most closely related known hominid to modern humans, filling in gaps between humanity and its Neanderthal ancestors as the search into mankind’s origins continues.

Discovered in the Chinese city of Harbin, the skull retains some primitive features found in our distant ancestors, including a low brow and braincase plus a broad nose. However, it also shows some signs of more refined hominid characteristics, like flatter and more delicate cheekbones. The creature’s apparent mixture of more modern human traits and more Neanderthal-like characteristics has paleoanthropologists excited as it represents a potential step forward in the quest to find humanity’s less-distant predecessors, possibly representing an inflection point at which mankind veered off from its Neanderthal ancestors.

Ancient 140K-year-old ‘Dragon Man’ skull found hidden in Chinese well where it languished, abandoned, for decades

An “anonymous Chinese man” working to build a bridge over the Songhua River in the early twentieth century buried the fossil deep in a disused well in Harbin, hoping to safeguard it – both from the forces of nature and from the Japanese forces that were occupying that part of China at the time. 

“Instead of passing along the potentially lucrative cranium to his Japanese bosses, he buried it in an abandoned well, a traditional Chinese method of concealing treasures,” said researchers who wrote a trio of articles published on Friday in The Innovation journal.

An article describing the specimen suggests it most likely belonged to a man in his 50s, who would have had an “extremely wide face” with deep-set eyes, as well as larger eye sockets, teeth and brain. The article was accompanied by a 3D reconstruction of the creature’s face, which arguably has more of a Neanderthal ‘look’ than that of more refined humans.

However, researcher Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who co-wrote another of the papers on the skull’s discovery, called it “the most important fossil I've seen in 50 years,” thrilled at “how important East Asia and China is in telling the human story.” The researchers hope to extract proteins and DNA from the body, which includes a tooth potentially serviceable for such purposes. They also hope to study the inside of the skull, particularly examining the sinuses, ears, and brain shape with the help of CT scans.

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The discovery offers archeologists a lot more to chew on than the Denisovans, whose proof of existence was found only in genetic information located in DNA. Their species line is believed to have split off around 410,000 years ago, leaving the Denisovans in Siberia’s Altai Mountains – whose Denisova Cave lent its name to them. The creature’s genes were sequenced in 2012, revealing they were in fact genetic ancestors of humans, suggesting that not only did they coexist with Neanderthals, but may have mated with them.

The understanding of human history is constantly changing. As new species surface in the fossil record and then drop off, some are discounted, and others shift places in the evolutionary timeline. Aside from the Neanderthals, which boasted a strong presence in the human fossil records for many years, and the Denisovans, which appear to be a formidable cousin to today’s hominids, several strains of humanity have interbred and fallen off the map, assimilated by species with stronger genetics.

Should Homo longi be crowned as the “missing link” – or one among several – the field of anthropology will experience a notable upheaval. Humans have been looking for their primary ancestor for decades, and the importance of having finally found it cannot be ignored. The skull is between 146,000 and 309,000 years old, according to one of the three studies published on Friday. The site where the remains were found, which translates to Dragon River, provided the moniker for the would-be Missing Link, who’s been dubbed “Dragon Man.”

Those wishing to meet their new great-great-great-great grandfather might be able to visit the skull in the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang, China, but it’s doubtful anyone will get to hug their new relative anytime soon.

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