Scientists Discovered a 'Dragon Man' Species That May Be Our Closest Relative

A skull from Harbin City, China, dates back at least 146,000 years and is “one of the most complete archaic human fossils” ever found.
This image shows comparisons among Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, Dali and Harbin crania (from left to right) CREDIT Kai Geng
Comparison of craniums, with the Harbin "Dragon Man" skull on the right. Image: Kai Geng
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An ancient human skull with a murky backstory represents an entirely new species, nicknamed “Dragon Man,” that may be an even closer relative of modern humans than Neanderthals, reports a trio of new studies that could rewrite the evolutionary history of our family tree.

The exquisitely preserved cranium was reportedly found in 1933 during the construction of the Dongjiang Bridge in Harbin City, China, but it has remained inaccessible to the public and to scientists for nearly a century. The person who first discovered the skull concealed it in an abandoned well, where it remained safely hidden throughout many tumultuous decades until his descendants discovered the family secret and donated the specimen to the Geoscience Museum at Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang.  


This fortuitous recovery has now enabled scientists to at last identify the skull as “one of the most complete archaic human fossils” which “provides critical evidence for studying the diversification of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens,” the name for our own modern species, according to the new research packet, which was published on Friday in The Innovation, a Cell Press journal set up in partnership with the Youth Innovation Promotion Association, a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“These studies are the first efforts to date the age and find the origin of the cranium,” said Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University, and an author on all three studies, in an email. 

“The cranium was donated to the public museum in 2018,” he added. “No one knew the cranium before that.”

To establish a rough estimate of the Harbin cranium’s age and place in the Homo lineage, Ni and his colleagues performed a host of geochemical analyses on it, and also compared the specimen to other mammal and human fossils excavated in the Harbin region. The results of that study, published here, revealed that the skull is at least 146,000 years old, and that it is compositionally similar to other Harbin fossils from this era, which is known as the Middle Pleistocene.


“All the provenancing experiments and dating analyses support the claim that the skull was from the Harbin area,” Ni said. “We can go even further to tell that it was from a set of Middle Pleistocene alluvial sediments,” which means that the sediments were shaped by water.  

“We can not pin the cranium to an exact point on the map, because there is no such technology,” he added. “But our studies have provided the most reliable data for finding its origin and age.”

With this key information about the cranium in hand, the team was able to make much more informed judgments about its previously unknown lineage, which may have crossed paths with Homo sapiens in Asia. The new species has been named Homo longi, after the geographic area Long Jiang, which translates to “dragon river,” according to the study that formally introduces “Dragon Man” into the Homo family.


Artist concept of Dragon Man. Image: Chuang Zhao

Because the skull is unusually intact, with only one missing tooth and slight damage on the left cheekbone, the researchers were able to reconstruct many details about this individual, which are outlined in the third study from Ni and his colleagues. 

As its nickname implies, the cranium likely belonged to a male that died at around the age of 50. The brain volume of the cranium is large, on par with a modern human, and the face has a “striking” resemblance to H. sapiens, according to the study, though it also has many archaic features such as a thick brow, a wide mouth, and large teeth. 


The Dragon Man lived in a woodland floodplain and subsisted through hunter-gatherer techniques, much like its genetic relatives. The cold winters in the region suggest that this species must have been extremely hardy: the authors note that “the very large size of the Harbin individual (as judged from the size of the cranium) may indicate physical adaptation to such conditions,” according to one of the studies.

Before their rigorous new analyses, Ni’s team thought the skull might belong to an Asian branch of the well-known group Homo heidelbergensis. But the studies, which include evaluations of less intact specimens that might belong to the same lineage, revealed the “unexpected” and “exciting” result that H. longi “is the sister group of H. sapiens,” Ni said.

To place the Dragon Man into its wider family tree, the researchers created a dataset of traits observed in 95 fossils from the heads of various Homo species that lived over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. This comparative approach suggested that the common ancestor of H. sapiens and H. longi has a more recent origin than the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, an extinct species that is widely thought to be our closest relative.

Our own ancestors and Neandertherals were genetically similar enough to interbreed, before their lineage died out some 40,000 years ago, leaving modern humans as the last survivors of the Homo family. Many humans alive today still contain a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA from these ancient interactions, which occurred in Europe. It’s not clear whether H. sapiens spread far enough into Eastern Asia to interact with H. longi, but it is possible, according to the new studies. 


“Our studies reveal that the Homo genus once had quite high diversity,” Ni said. “The divergent times of different Homo species/populations are much deeper than we have thought. Our own species, Homo sapiens, actually has a quite deep root of origin.”

To build on these provocative new findings, the team plans to “do more morphological studies mainly based on high-resolution CT technology, to test more phylogenetic analysis models, to do more fieldwork in the Harbin area to excavate more fossils and artifacts, and try to do ancient DNA proteomic analyses,” Ni added.

These future avenues of research will reveal further insights about the Dragon Man and its broader community in Asia, which could have major implications for understanding our own species. But as tempting as it is to think of H. longi only in relation to ourselves, this fascinating population also deserves to be viewed as a unique evolutionary story, according to the study.

“If these East Asian archaic humans indeed belong to a monophyletic evolutionary lineage sister to the H. sapiens lineage, this human lineage must have been as successful as the early H. sapiens populations in Africa and the Mideast, because they distributed in a very large area, including some extreme environments,” the team concluded.