‘Dragon man’ in his habitat. Photograph: Chuang Zhao

Our understanding of human evolution could be ‘reshaped’ by the identification of a new ancient human that may replace Neanderthals as our closest relative.

Hidden down a well for decades, the stunningly complete cranium is stirring debate about the increasing number of fossils that don’t neatly fit in the classic human origin story.

Chinese researchers have called the skull, found in Harbin in the north, Homo longi, or ‘Dragon man’, but other experts are more cautious about naming a new species. 

The extraordinary fossil has been named a new human species, Homo longi or “Dragon man”, by Chinese researchers, although other experts are more cautious about the designation.

“I think this is one of the most important finds of the past 50 years,” said Prof Chris Stringer, research leader at the Natural History Museum in London, who worked on the project. “It’s a wonderfully preserved fossil.”

Scientists discover new human species which could be closest relative to humankind

The researchers believe that the Harbin cranium belonged to a strong, robust, male individual who died at around the age of 50. He was likely part of a small community that resided in a forested, floodplain environment.

‘Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, gathered fruits and vegetables  — and perhaps even caught fish,” said paper author and paleoanthropologist Xijun Ni, also of the Hebei GEO University.

Regardless of whether Dragon Man is a new species, its stunningly preserved features are a reminder that nature rarely paints inside the lines, and that categorization will only get more complex as new discoveries emerge.

By Ian Sample Science editor / THE GUARDIAN

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