Dragon Man Upsets the Textbooks on Human Evolution
For the third time in 2020-2021, books about human evolution must be
rewritten. Not so fast! Major problems exist with the Homo longi fossil.
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
A new human evolution missing link called Dragon Man has been found. The scientific designation is Homo longi, also called the Harbin skull. Supporters claim that a “New human species ‘Dragon Man’ may be our closest relative.” The fossil was called Dragon Man because the province of China where it was found, Heilongjiang, literally means Black Dragon River.
This illustration shows an artist conception of what “Dragon Man” may have looked like during his lifetime. It was Darwin-dated at 146,000 years. (Image credit: Chuang Zhao)
The claim is based on part of a single skull discovered 85 years ago in China’s most northern province. The find was widely published as the skull that “provides important evidence for understanding the evolution of humans and the origin of our species.” Even National Geographic got on the band wagon, declaring that the “‘Dragon Man’ skull may be a new species, shaking up the human family tree.”
An alternative view is that the skull may have been a deformed man, perhaps a Neanderthal, a Denisovan, or a unique Caucasian similar to some people walking around today. Maybe it was a pituitary giant, or a giant man as described in the Bible that existed in modern times. These possibilities are ignored by many Dragon Man advocates. Rather, they claim, based on the skull found, that it belongs “to a previously unknown human species they have dubbed Homo longi, or ‘Dragon Man.’”
What We Know
So far, the skull is the largest Homo skull on record, supporting the position that it was a large man, not a “new species.” From the empirical study of the skull, paleoanthropologists have determined that
His head was huge — containing a large brain — with a long, low shape and massive brow ridge over the eyes. His face, nose and jaws were very broad, and he had big eyes. But his face was low in height, with delicate cheekbones, and it was tucked back under the braincase, as in a modern human.
Furthermore, the paleoanthropologists noted slight depressions on the top of the skull that they surmised were remnants of healed wounds. Their analysis determined that the skull likely belonged to a male who died at about age 50.
The Controversy Has Begun
Already, as is typical in the case of claimed human evolution fossils, controversy has begun. Geggel reported that the Homo longi “interpretation is debatable; it seems possible that this skull belongs to the mysterious Denisovan human lineage, [according to] three scientists specializing in human evolution.”  Denisovan was a sister group of the Neanderthals for which only scant fossil remains have been found—a few teeth, a fractured skull piece, a pinky bone, and possibly a broken jaw.
The Homo longi interpretation comes from a phylogenic study reported by one of the foremost living paleoanthropologists, Chris Stringer. Stringer is a research leader at the Center for Human Evolution Research located at the Natural History Museum in London. The results “linked it to H. sapiens rather than H. neanderthalensis. … conclusions …. based on the analysis of large amounts of data,” concluded Stringer. The data used included over 600 traits, which were computer analyzed to determine Homo longi’s relatedness to other early human fossils. Their results depended heavily on the quality of the other early human fossils they compared with Homo longi, a problem because most claimed early human fossils consisted largely of fragments of poor quality.
The family tree re-analysis revealed what the paleoanthropologists called a bombshell: “The common ancestor humans share with Neanderthals likely lived more than 1 million years ago, which is about 400,000 years earlier than scientists previously thought.”
This revised date puts what paleontologists judged was a fossil in between humans and Neanderthals, 600,000 years earlier than the common ancestor humans share with Neanderthals. This data illustrates how specious dating guesstimates are. The researchers recognized the quandary, noting “the stunningly complete cranium is stirring debate about the increasing number of fossils that don’t neatly fit in the classic human origin story.” From the photographs, the skull looks closer to hundreds of years old or less, not thousands. In short, “not all the scientists and outside experts agree that Dragon Man is a separate species—nor do they agree about its relative position on the hominin family tree.”
The Fossil Evidence
The only evidence for Dragon Man was a skull described as “well-preserved,” a “stunningly complete cranium,” and the level of “completeness of the Harbin skull is every paleoanthropologist’s dream.” Actually, it was extraordinarily well-preserved compared to almost all claimed human-ape links, many of which consist mostly of bone fragments. Only the upper section of the Homo longi skull was preserved. Some important parts, including the lower jaw and most all of the teeth, were missing. One tooth remained in the cranium, which had three roots, a rare trait among modern humans.
The History of the Dragon Man Skull Discovery
The history of Dragon Man’s skull illustrates a common problem, namely lack of credible details of its discovery. It is said that some nameless Chinese man who worked as a labor contractor for the Japanese invaders found it while working on raising the Dongjiang Bridge near Harbin in China’s northernmost province. One of the workers noticed a human skull in the river mud. The worker, or another person, chose not to give the skull to his Japanese boss. Instead, he buried it in an abandoned well, where, the story goes, it remained for 85 years. Before the Chinese man died, he told his grandkids about the skull. They recovered it in 2018 and donated it to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University.
This story may have elements of truth, but it lacks evidence and suffers from a number of major problems which, as far as I could tell, were never addressed in the papers published about Homo longi.
The first problem is, when a fossil is found, it is critical to pinpoint the physical location, the soil and land traits where it was found and how deep below the surface it was found: i.e., the provenance of the fossil. The only information we have is a secondhand report from the grandchildren of the original discoverer. Another enormous problem is where it was found: was it in mud? Was it in or near water? The main features of the climate in Heilongjiang Province where it was found include chilly and dry in winter, and hot and rainy in the summer.
Water is called the universal solvent because it is capable of dissolving more substances than any other liquid. Depending on the conditions, water normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose bone. The protein in bone normally breaks down first, then the calcium is effectively dissolved in water, even at room temperature. Bone lasts for years but not anything near 146,000 years as claimed.
Many factors are involved in bone deterioration, including heat, bacteria, wetness, plant growth, and pH. A body buried in soil with a high pH decomposes rapidly. A body exposed to sun, wind and blowing grit like sand can wear away quickly. This is the reason why most all claimed human fossils are found in very dry, often arid, deserts protected by rock.
The Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee has researched bone preservation for over 20 years. I have been unable to find any evidence from their work that support the notion that the skull could last even 100 years – much less the 146,000 years claimed for Homo longi. How long the skull was in the wet soil is unknown, only that it was reportedly found in that condition. Only the top part of the skull was found and no other body parts except one tooth, which can last far longer than bone.
Yet another problem is the 85 years it sat in a well. Did water enter the well? Were insects, worms, bacteria or other life forms present? I looked for a discussion of these issues but found nothing, even in the peer-reviewed copy of the original paper which never mentioned the water or preservation problem. The study of the preservation of fossils (called taphonomy) was ignored.
The Homo longi claim is that “Dragon Man” may be closer to us than Neanderthals, which are now believed by paleoanthropologists to be fully human. This conclusion supports the claim that Dragon Man is fully human. Rather than this skull being evidence of another race or species, as widely touted in the media, judging by the partial skull found, it appears to be a large man with the combination of some Neanderthal and some modern Caucasian traits not unlike some men living today.
The main question that needs to be dealt with is related to taphonomy, especially its provenance in a wet area of the county near a river, then later in a well where it was allegedly stored for 85 years. Until these questions are answered, numerous issues are speculative at least, and unwarranted at best. We only have a secondhand story about its location and the circumstances around its discovery, but nothing that has been properly substantiated.
In spite of these problems, Dragon Man has enjoyed enormous media exposure in the major media outlets, such as The National Geographic and The New York Times, which again portray skulls as proof of evolution.
The above lineup of skulls attempts to show evolution but does nothing of the sort. What they show is not progression, but variation. Variability is found in many animals today including humans. Note the small 4th skull from the left. From these skulls it is difficult to make conclusions about size because age has to be controlled as does the problem of judging the height and weight of a species from one sample, which is what is shown here. From https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/ELmJNgznZhMSxCENHP84iJ-970-80.jpg
 Geggel, Laura. New human species ‘Dragon Man’ may be our closest relative. Live Science, 25 June 2021, https://www.livescience.com/dragon-man-human-species.html.
 Pavid, Katie. Dragon Man: Ancient skull from China could be new human species. Natural History Museum, 25 June 2021, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2021/june/ancient-skull-from-china-could-be-new-species-dragon-man.html.
 Wei-Haas, Maya. ‘Dragon Man’ skull may be new species, shaking up human family tree. National Geographic, 28 June 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/dragon-man-fossil-skull-may-represent-new-human-species-in-china.
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 Anil Aggrawal. APC Essentials of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. APC Books, New Delhi, India, 2021.
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 Ji, Qiang. 2021. Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species. The Innovation. 2, 100132. https://www.cell.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2666-6758%2821%2900057-6.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.