A large fossilized skull discovered in China in 1933 could be a new species of ancient human, scientists said Friday.
Harbin’s skull is at least 146,000 years old and a group of international researchers wrote in the journal The Innovation that phylogenetic analysis suggests that it represents “a new sister line for Homo sapiens”.
In a summary of one of the three papers, the group wrote that the massive size and large cranial capacity of the well-preserved artifact falls within the range of modern humans, but is combined with “a mosaic of primitive and derived characters. “.
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“It differs from all other named Homo species by exhibiting a combination of features, such as a long and low cranial vault, a broad and low face, wide and almost square eye sockets, a slightly curved but massively developed supraorbital torus. , flat, low cheekbones with a shallow canine fossa and a shallow palate with thick alveolar bone supporting very large molars, ”the group said, noting that the skull“ advances ”human understanding of several other less fossils. complete from China at the end of the Middle Pleistocene which had been interpreted as local “evolutionary intermediaries” between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.
Upon closer examination, scientists found that the Harbin skull and other Middle Pleistocene human fossils from China formed an “East Asian third lineage, which is part of the sister group of the H lineage. sapiens ”.
“Our analyzes of these morphologically distinctive archaic human lineages from Asia, Europe and Africa suggest that the diversification of the genus Homo may have had a much longer timescale than previously assumed,” they said. added. “Sympatric isolation of small populations combined with long-range stochastic dispersions is the best-suited biogeographic model to interpret the evolution of the genus Homo. “
In an additional commentary, the scientists suggested that one of the fossils they used called Dali’s skull – found in Shaanxi province and believed to be its own species, Homo daliensis – and another skull from Hualongdong should be called Homo daliensis, the “clear diagnosis” of the Harbin skull. characteristics’ differ from the skulls of Dali and Hualongdong.
The Harbin skull, they said, has a sister group relationship with the Denisovan Xiahe mandible of Gansu province.
“It is possible that both specimens belong to H. longi sp. Nov. Other Middle Pleistocene human fossils from China and neighboring regions will test this idea, ”they promised.
The Denisovans, close relatives of the Neanderthals, lived in Asia for hundreds of thousands of years, but scientists have found only small fossil traces of their existence. They are known to have interbreeded with Homo sapiens, as there was more than one species of hominid at the time.
Harbin’s skull renderings helped bring the male homo longi, nicknamed “the dragon man” – after the Long Jiang, or Dragon River, in Heilongjiang Province – to life.
The man was around 50 when he died.
The skull was allegedly found under mysterious circumstances nearly 90 years ago, when a Chinese worker working on a bridge over the Songhua River removed it from nearby sediment, according to the London Natural History Museum (NHM).
The man kept Harbin’s skull well hidden until shortly before his death in 2018, after which his family moved the skull and donated it to the Geoscience Museum, Hebei University GEO and the lead professor of the study. Qiang Ji.
The South China Morning Post reported on Friday that the man had hidden him in order to protect him from the Japanese military.
In a lengthy statement posted to Twitter on Friday, NHM paleoanthropologist and co-author of two of Dragon Man’s three articles, Christopher Stringer, wrote that he was invited to join Qiang Ji in 2019 and marveled at the preservation of the Harbin skull.
“The skull is almost intact, but with only one huge second molar preserved, and it is massive in size, with an endocranial volume of approximately 1420 ml. It has a strong supraorbital torus and an upper surface, a nasal opening and a very wide palate, but on the other hand, the face is low with delicate cheekbones and retracted under the cranial vault, more like Homo sapiens ”, did he declare.
“Nonetheless, the skull has a clearly archaic profile – long, low, and without the globular shape found in our species,” Stringer continued. “However, the mastoid and broad processes, and the back of the skull do not show the angulated occipital bone and strong transverse torus found in large individuals of H. heidelbergensis. From behind, the skull is very broad and parallel-sided, without the superior parietal expansion found in H. sapiens and the nearly spherical shape and suprainiac fossa found in most Neanderthals (Ni et al., 2021). “
Stringer pointed out that while paleoanthropologists often use benchmark-based analyzes to measure the overall similarities between compared human fossils, his colleagues’ phylogenetic analyzes use mathematical techniques to construct branching diagrams of evolutionary relationships between them. species or organisms.
“These methods were applied to 95 representative fossils and over 600 metric and morphological traits, and analyzes revealed 3 main clades of humans from the Late Pleistocene: H. sapiens, H. neanderthalensis and a group containing Harbin and d ‘ other Chinese fossils such as Dali, Jinniushan and Xiahe, ”he said.
In doing so, what was “surprising” to Stringer was that the Harbin clade – a grouping that includes a common ancestor and all descendants of that ancestor – was first linked to Homo sapiens and not to Homo neanderthalensis. .
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Stringer said that although he thinks the Harbin group warrants a separate species name, he “would prefer to place the Harbin and Dali fossils together as H. daliensis” and consider Harbin’s skull a ” possible Denisovan ”.
“But these differences of opinion should not distract from a remarkable new piece in the puzzle of human evolution, a fossil that will continue to add important information for many years to come,” he said. he concludes.