In 1933, a Chinese man working for the Japanese occupation found an extraordinary skull in the sediments along the banks of the Songhua River near the city of Harbin. Since the Peking Man fossils, found just a few years earlier, were widely celebrated in China, he must have known that the strange-looking skull was something special. Instead of turning it over to the Japanese, the man hid the skull in an abandoned well, and after the war, the man kept the discovery to himself for decades. Finally, near his death, he told his family the story of the skull, and in 2018 the third generation of his family recovered it from the well where he hid it 85 years earlier. It’s an extraordinary story.
Just this week, descriptions of the skull (cranium) was published in a journal called The Innovation. The skull is quite large, with a cranial capacity (roughly, the brain size) that is well within the range of modern humans, but the forehead is low with a prominent and thick browridge. The skull reminds me of skulls from Herto in Ethiopia and Kabwe in Zambia, both of which have that heavy brow. The single molar tooth that remains is very large, comparable to the teeth of the very sparse Denisovan fossils.
The anthropologists who described this fossil argued that it ought to be recognized as a new species, which they name Homo longi. The name derives from “Long Jiang,” a common name for the region where it was found which translates to “dragon river.” Thus, the skull comes from the Dragon Man. The researchers were able to use a technique called x-ray fluorescence to examine the mineral composition and match it to the most likely geological source, which they dated to a conventional date of at least 146,000 years ago.
What struck me most about this skull is the similarity of the molar to the teeth of Denisovans. The Denisovans were originally discovered from just a few scattered remains from the Denisova Cave in Siberia. Despite the fragmentary nature of those first Denisovan fossils, researchers were able to recover DNA that was distinct from both modern people and from DNA known from Neandertals. Denisovans are therefore a genetic type in search of a face. Based on the teeth from Denisova Cave, we know that these individuals had very large molars. Later researchers discovered a partial jawbone in Tibet that turned out to be a Denisovan jaw. Other than that, we are not sure what these Denisovans looked like. Some anthropologists have suggested that some of the peculiar fossil skulls with big teeth from China could represent the appearance of the Denisovans, and now we have another one that looks like a good candidate for a Denisovan.
Considering all this mystique and excitement surrounding the Denisovans, I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more of an effort to examine that one molar left in this Dragon Man skull. The authors acknowledge that its size only matches the teeth of Denisovans, but that’s as far as they go. I personally found this a little deficient in the paper that names this skull as H. longi. I wouldn’t be surprised if future research reveals that this skull is our first look at the face of a Denisovan.
As a creationist, I have no doubt this skull is the remains of a human being made in the image of God and descended from Adam and Eve. The similarity to other skulls known to be human is very strong. This individual was likely an early settler of northeastern China in the decades and centuries after the Tower of Babel. Call him Dragon Man if you will, but he’s still God’s handiwork.
Ji et al. 2021. Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species. Innovation 2:100132.
Ni et al. 2021. Massive cranium from Harbin establishes a new Middle Pleistocene human lineage in China. Innovation 2:1001030.
Shao et al. 2021. Geochemical locating and direct dating of the Harbin archaic human cranium. Innovation 2:100131.