Israeli Archaeologists Think New Chinese Hominin 'Dragon Man' May Be Homo Nesher

Phylogenetic analysis led a team to posit that a skull found in 1933 is an unknown species of hominin. Israeli researchers think it looks like an early Neanderthal

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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A facial digital reconstruction of Dragon Man.
A facial digital reconstruction of Dragon Man.Credit: Chuang Zhao
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Dragon Man, a new human species proclaimed from China on Friday, couldn’t spit fire or fly but was apparently of impressive dimensions. It wasn’t named for the mythical reptile because of its size, however. Its skull was discovered in 1933 in Harbin City, in the province of Heilongjiang, which literally means “Dragon River” – and that is the origin of its name, Homo longi.

In a set of three papers published in the journal The Innovation, Qiang Ji of Hebei GEO University, Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Science, Rainer Gruen of Griffith University, Australia, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, and others argue that Homo longi is distinct from other recognized human species and variants that coexisted in the Middle to Late Pleistocene: Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergis, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens.

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Moreover, they argue that H. longi – represented by a single skull dating to at least 146,000 years ago, dubbed the “Harbin cranium” – may represent a previously unknown sister lineage to Homo sapiens. They also posit that it is more closely related to Homo sapiens than Neanderthals were; and that it profoundly changes the big picture of human evolution.

“To be precise, Dragon Man belongs to the sister lineage of sapiens,” Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University, explains to Haaretz. “This lineage includes Homo longi, Homo daliensis and some other European and African species/ populations.”

Also, if we assume Homo sapiens was also getting about Eurasia during the Middle Pleistocene, which apparently it was, it isn’t impossible that early modern humans and Dragon People met.

“We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations coexisting in Asia, Africa and Europe during that time. So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with H. longi, and since we don’t know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well,” says Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum.

And how would H. longi change the big picture of human evolution? The team suggests their phylogenetic analysis may throw back the split between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. If at present the thinking is the split happened about 700,000 years ago, this team estimates it at 948,700 years ago, Ni says, adding: “This common ancestor is most likely from Africa, according to our analyses.”

At least on that African origin of the proto-Neanderthal/sapiens, most archaeologists and anthropologists agree. On who Dragon Man might have been, they do not agree. Far from it being a “new species” more similar to Homo sapiens than Neanderthals, Israeli archaeologists suggest it looks like an early Neanderthal and, if anything, it may be a variant of a hominin from which Neanderthals may have arisen: Nesher Ramla Man, whose existence in prehistory was reported just this Thursday.

There be Dragon Men

Dragon Man’s massive cranium exhibits a mix of primitive and modern features, as many hominin remains from the Middle Pleistocene do. The Harbin cranium had a capacity of about 1,420 milliliters, in keeping with our own brain size, which is a “modern” attribute.

Comparisons among, from left, Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, Dali and Harbin crania.Credit: Kai Geng

It also had a “primitive” beetling brow, a relatively flat head, low cheek bones, a wide mouth and large teeth, and a big nose. It is the largest of known Homo skulls found so far, the team adds. It also featured large square-shaped eye sockets, which is unusual, Stringer tells Haaretz. Ni elaborates: no similar degree has been observed in any other human fossils, he says.

“The Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters, setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” says Qiang Ji, hence the decision to categorize it as a separate species.

The theory that Dragon Man represents an unknown sister group to sapiens is based not on morphology but on phylogenetic analyses – studying the theoretical evolutionary development of a species. The group posits that other hominins living in Asia during the Middle Pleistocene were all part of this sister group.

“In eastern Asia, several Middle-Late Pleistocene human fossils, such as the Dali, Jinniushan, Hualongdong and Harbin crania, evidently resemble each other and are phylogenetically closer to H. sapiens than to H. neanderthalensis or other archaic humans,” the team writes (a paper on the Harbin cranium’s dating was published in parallel).

Asked how they deduced the sister-species relationship with sapiens, Ni explains to Haaretz: “We checked and scored over 600 characters across about 100 human cranial and mandible fossils, and established a morphological data matrix. Based on this data matrix, we ran phylogenetic analyses. We examined thousands of billions of topology rearrangements and tested various evolution models. Our results suggest that H. longi belongs to a lineage that is the sister group of the H. sapiens lineage.”

There also be skeptics. “There is a big problem with their analysis: it isn’t morphologically based. They have no statistical analysis, no three-dimensional shape analysis or features analysis,” says Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, an expert on early humans. Absent a morphological study, they cannot conclude how close it was to Homo sapiens, and therefore he does not see a basis for suggesting that Homo longi was a sister species to sapiens. Nor would there be any basis for postulating an early split between sapiens and Neanderthals, he adds.

Asked how they reached the postulation of the early split, Ni explains: “We used a mathematic method called tip-dating Bayesian inference. This method takes all the fossils as age-calibration points, and examines the probability of morphological changes across thousands of billions of topology combinations of different Homo species/populations, and results in a phylogenetic tree with split dates for all the nodes.”

OK. But what can we categorically say about the Dragon Person?

Who was Harbin cranium?

Our long-lost sister or not, this was a roughly 50-year-old male, the researchers suggest. He lived more or less contemporaneously with many archaic humans in China in the Middle Pleistocene, the team explains: such as Xiahe from about 160,000 years ago; Jinniushan, about 200,000 years ago; Dali, 327,000 to 240,000 years ago; and Hualongdong, dated to 365,000 to 265,000 years ago.

A reconstruction of Dragon Man in his habitat.Credit: Chuang Zhao

This time frame is roughly contemporary with early exits by early modern humans from Africa via the Middle East, the researchers point out. The early sapiens migrations seem to have died out; but later ones from about 60,000 years ago succeeded (as attested by we – here we are).

If these East Asian archaic humans indeed were a sister lineage to sapiens, they were just as successful as early sapiens were in Africa and the Middle East, because they distributed in a very large area, including some extreme environments: high altitude and high latitude, the team stresses.

No argument there; whether H. longi is actually a variant of H. Nesher Ramla as the Israeli archaeologists suggest, and in fact if all these Middle Pleistocene hominins in China were variants of this type, they were definitely successful.

The specimen in question didn’t live in a particularly extreme environment: he, if male he was, habited a forested, floodplain environment, they reconstruct.

But given his size and based on the theory that the hominins found at Xiahe and the other sites around Asia were part of a successful sister group to sapiens – the team suggests Dragon Man may have adapted to harsh environments, enabling their wide dispersal.

A similar argument is made for Denisovans: that at least some of them inhabited the Himalayas and “contributed” altitude-tolerance genes to present-day Tibetans. Or put the other way around, Tibetans got genes helping them survive at rarified heights from the Denisovans. (They are considered a sister group to Neanderthals, by the way. They also interbred: a teenager living in Denisova Cave 90,000 years ago had a Denisovan father and Neanderthal mother.)

However, when he observes the images of Harbin cranium, Hershkovitz suspects Dragon Man looks more like an early Neanderthal than a sister to sapiens. Hence his suggestion that it may be a variant of Homo Nesher Ramla, which lived in the Middle Pleistocene from about 400,000 years ago.

Hershkovitz, an expert on early human evolution, believes Nesher Ramla Man may have been ancestral to the Neanderthals; and to Dragon Man too. (Pre-Neanderthals found in Spain existed about 400,000 years ago, and the Neanderthals as we know them arose about 200,000 years ago, he explains.)

By the way, Hershkovitz doesn’t define Nesher Ramla Man as a species per se. “I don’t like saying ‘species.’ It’s pretentious. I call them morphological groups,” he says. “We defined a new one, Nesher Ramla, in the late Middle Pleistocene.” The hominin remains found at Qesem and at Tabun in Israel belonged to this morphological group; and the Dragon Man, Dali hominin and the other Middle Pleistocene specimens in China may all be variants of that group too, he suggests. “There is no connection with Homo sapiens whatsoever,” he sums up.

Changing paradigms of human evolution requires strong anthropological proof, which Hershkovitz feels the team does not produce. “Their phylogenetic trees are speculative and based on putative dates, but not on morphology,” he says.

Based on their phylogenetic analysis, the team feels Dragon Man is closer to Homo sapiens than Neanderthals were. Hershkovitz however feels, “looking at the skull, just looking, obviously that can’t be true. The problem is that in contrast with our work [deducing the existence of H. Nesher Ramla], they did no shape analysis, and without comparison of their skull to others – who can say,” he says.

DNA analysis could help put all this speculation to rest. But frankly, we laypeople are getting spoiled rotten by all the seemingly casual reports on analysis of ancient DNA, from the discovery of the Denisovan species based on the genetic analysis of one weeny finger-bone, to the million-year-old mammoth. The truth is, it isn’t that easy. It’s horribly difficult to extract DNA from ancient bones, if it can be done at all, and to identify the proper sequences.

In the case of Dragon Man or Nesher Ramla Man variant, whatever it is – it hasn’t been done, at least yet. Ni and Stringer confirm that they hope it will one day, but until then the argument over what this creature may have been will likely rage on. And meanwhile, Dragon Man, be ye a sister to sapiens or a variant of Nesher Ramla Man, welcome to the family.

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