Scientists believe a human skull found almost 90 years ago in northern China by a Chinese man being forced by occupying Japanese soldiers to help build a bridge is the newest link in human evolution and could from a species closest to modern-day man.
According to the man's family, he found the largely complete skull while he was digging in a riverbank of the Songhua River in Harbin, Science magazine reported.
When the soldiers were not looking, the man wrapped up the skull and hid it in a well, and now the skull has been revealed and been given the name "Dragon Man," and is believed to be more than 146,000 years old.
Paleontologist Qiang Ji of Hebei GEO University and researchers, in three papers in the journal The Innovation call the new species Homo longi, with the word meaning dragon in Mandarin.
Other researchers, however, are questioning the skull is from a newly discovered species but say it might be a long-lost skull from a Denisovan, another human ancestor from Asia that has been known mainly from DNA.
Other researchers question the idea of a new species and the team's analysis of the human family tree. But they suspect the large skull has an equally exciting identity: They think it might be the long-sought skull of a Denisovan, an elusive human ancestor from Asia known chiefly from DNA.
"It's a wonderful skull; I think it's the best skull of a Denisovan that we'll ever have," says paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Further, paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridge, said she is "skeptical of the statements about humans' long-lost sister lineage," but like Hublin is excited about the discovery.
Science reports the bridge builder told his grandchildren about the skull while on his deathbed, and they went to recover it from the well and donated it to the Geoscience Museum at Hebei GEO University.
The man died before Qiang could ask him exactly where he discovered the fossil, however, leaving Qiang to enlist researchers to help him date the find. Strontium isotopes found in the skull's naval cavities matched a specific layer of sediment near the bridge, allowing them to date the skull to be from between 138,000 and 309,000 years ago. Uranium series dating tests that were used gave showed the fossil is at least 146,000 years old.
The skull, believed to be that of a male in his 50s, is said to be large enough to hold a brain of the size that modern humans have but said it also shows Dragon Man had larger, square-shaped eye sockets, thick ridges on his brow, oversized teeth, and a wide mouth.
"This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens," Qiang said.
"It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs 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 H. sapiens," Xijun Ni, professor of primatology and paleoanthropology and a research author, also said.
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