A newly-discovered species of ancient human, dubbed the “Dragon man”, has replaced Neanderthals as humankind’s closest relative, according to a groundbreaking new study.
Humans and Neanderthals are thought to be intrinsically-linked, evolutionary siblings who co-existed, mated, and likely fought each other.
But a new study has discovered that the Dragon man, scientifically named Homo longi, is actually more closely related to Homo sapiens than Neanderthals are.
“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” explains study co-author Dr Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University.
“We found our long-lost sister lineage."
Analysis of the skull revealed the individual was likely a male around 50-years-old who had large, square eye sockets, a thick brow, a wide mouth and big teeth.
“The fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world," said co-author Dr Qiang Ji, a professor of paleontology of Hebei GEO University.
“While it shows typical archaic human features, the cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously-named Homo species.”
Only the skull of the man was found, with no other bones surviving. But this provided the scientists with enough information to learn how he may have looked.
The major finding, they have said, was the size of his skull, and subsequently, his brain.
Professor Chris Stringer, co-author of the study and doyen of human evolution at the Natural History Museum in London, said: ‘The [Dragon man] cranium is huge, showing either the largest or second largest values for many measurements in our comparative fossil database, and its brain volume at ~1420 ml matches that of modern humans.”
Prof Ni added: “Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, and gathered fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even caught fish."
The incredibly well-preserved skull is thought to be 146,000 years old and was first unearthed in 1933 but required modern analysis to be accurately dated.
This means the Dragon man lived during a busy period in human evolution, when there were various different human species living and migrating all over the world.
It is entirely possible, the researchers have said, that the Dragon man species overlapped, met and lived alongside ancient Homo sapiens.
Scientists gave the new species the name Dragon man because of where the skull was discovered. It was reportedly first unearthed by construction workers building a bridge over the Songhua River in Harbin City in the 1930s.
Harbin City resides in the Heilongjiang Province, which is also known as Long Jiang. The English translation of this is Dragon river, and the term was used to name the new hominid.
The findings also have implications for the proposed timeline of human evolution. Current theories state modern humans and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor, but split off into two different lineages around 600,000 years ago.
The non-human lineage then split again, around 200,000 years later, to produce Neanderthals and Denisovans, the two most famous ancient human relatives which Homo sapiens are known to have mated with.
But while Homo sapiens thrived and colonised the world, Denisovans went extinct around 30,000 years ago and Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago.
According to the new study, published on Friday in the journal The Innovation, the human lineage and the Neanderthal/Denisovan lineage may have split far earlier, more than a million years ago.
However, the timeline of human evolution was further muddied this week by the discovery of a previously unknown Neanderthal ancestor in the Levant.
Researchers in Israel said the skull belonged to a person who was likely one of the last remaining individuals of an ancient species. They lived around 130,000 years ago, but their species had likely been around for more than 100,000 years by that point.
Neanderthals may have evolved from this species, researchers have said, and they likely lived alongside one another, before the newly-discovered species, called Nesher Ramla Homo, went extinct.
Scientists speculate in their paper, published Thursday in Science, that humans may have mated with this species. This would explain the presence of Neanderthal DNA which predates when Neanderthals and Homo sapiens first met, they said.