Hidden down a well for decades, the stunningly complete cranium is stirring debate about the increasing number of fossils that don’t neatly fit in the classic human origin story.
Last week, news emerged that archaeologists had unearthed a new type of prehistoric human that emerged 400,000 years ago and which is thought to have likely interbred with Homo sapiens. Skull and jaw fragments of a 'Nesher Ramla' Homo were found at an open-air prehistoric site of the same name at a cement plant near the city of Ramla, Israel.
Now, another new species has been announced by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The strange skull that they analysed was originally discovered in the early 1930s in Harbin, China’s northernmost province, when a man building a bridge over a river spotted it in the mud. Perhaps aware of the importance of the find, he squirreled it away in an abandoned well. Now, nearly 90 years later, a new study argues that this skull represents a new human species: Homo longi, or the Dragon Man.
The nearly complete human skull has an elongated cranium from which a heavy brow bone protruded, shading the gaping squares that once housed eyes, reports National Geographic.
And then there was the skull’s unusual size: "It's enormous," says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum.
Two additional studies reveal that the stunningly preserved cranium likely came from a male that died at least 146,000 years ago. Its mashup of both ancient and more modern anatomical features hints at a unique placement on the human family tree.
"I’ve held a lot of other human skulls and fossils, but never like this," says paleoanthropologist Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is an author of all three studies.
Based on the shape and size of the Harbin skull, as it's often called, and comparison to other known fossils, the researchers posit that it’s closely related to several other perplexing human fossils, from this same time period, that have been found across Asia. The researchers’ analysis suggests all these fossils belong to a group that is closely related to our own species - perhaps even more so than the Neanderthals.