A large fossil skull discovered in China may be our closest relative in the human family tree, than the previously known Neanderthals, according to a new research.
The fossil -- Harbin cranium -- is the largest of known Homo skulls and scientists now say this skull represents a newly discovered human species named Homo longi or "Dragon Man."
Their findings, appearing in three papers published in the journal the Innovation, suggest that the Homo longi lineage may be our closest relatives -- and has the potential to reshape our understanding of human evolution.
"The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world," says author Qiang Ji, Professor of paleontology of Hebei GEO University in China.
The cranium was reportedly discovered in the 1930s in Harbin City of the Heilongjiang province of China. The massive skull could hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans' but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth.
"While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously-named Homo species," said Ji, leading to its new species designation of Homo longi.
Further, the team also found that Homo longi is one of our closest hominin relatives, even more closely related to us than Neanderthals.
"It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species. However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H sapiens," Ni said.
"The divergence time between H sapiens and the Neanderthals may be even deeper in evolutionary history than generally believed, over one million years," Ni said. If true, we likely diverged from Neanderthals roughly 400,000 years earlier than scientists had thought.
The researchers say that findings gathered from the Harbin cranium have the potential to rewrite major elements of human evolution. Their analysis into the life history of Homo longi suggest they were strong, robust humans whose potential interactions with Homo sapiens may have shaped our history in turn.