‘Dragon man’

Chinese skull, dated to at least 146,000 years ago, presents evolutionary puzzle.

Not all fossil humans come from scientific excavations. Nearly 90 years ago, an almost intact human skull was found by a worker while digging foundations of a new railroad bridge near Harbin, north-eastern China. The worker hid the cranium in a well, where it remained for three generations, until his family donated it to Hebei’s GEO University museum in 2018.

The museum put together a team of experts, who completed three studies using the latest scientific methods. They drilled a core near the railroad bridge and compared the strontium isotope ratios from the sediments inside the skull’s nasal cavity with those recovered by the drill. The match was plausible. X-ray fluorescence dated the skull to at least 146,000 years ago.

The skull is exceptionally large, the largest of all known early human skulls. The brain size similar to that of modern humans, but the skull displays archaic features. The brow is thick, the eye sockets large and almost square. A wide mouth accommodates extra-large teeth. Overall, the skull displays a complex mosaic of features that are different to those of the well-known Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis crania from the west. Paleoanthropologist Xiyun Ni and his colleagues compared no fewer than 600 morphological features of the skull to those on 95 other human crania in an attempt to establish the relations between different Homo species of the day. Their analysis identified three main lineages of these archaic humans. One was Homo sapiens, another the Neanderthals, and the third a still poorly defined group that included the Harbin find and other Chinese fossils of the same general date. The experts agree that the Harbin individual is closer to the Homo sapiens than Neanderthals, but where exactly he fits in the evolutionary scheme of things remains a mystery.

‘Dragon man’, is a remarkable skull will generate controversy for generations. Could he be one of the elusive Denisovans, known from genetics and toe bones from Siberia? Only more discoveries will provide definitive answers.

Image: The skull of ‘Dragon man’. Credit: Wei Gao.