The Story Behind China’s ‘Dragon Man’ Discovery
Ji Qiang begins our interview with a revelation: The story circulating the world about how the now-famous “dragon man” skull was discovered probably isn’t true.
Over the past week, the 70-year-old paleontologist has shot to global fame after publishing a series of bombshell papers in the China-based peer-reviewed journal The Innovation on June 25. In them, Ji and his team claim a fossilized skull that came into Ji’s possession belongs to a new species of early hominin that they named Homo longi.
Much of the media attention has focused on how the skull was found. The man who gave the fossil to Ji described how his grandfather originally unearthed it in the 1930s.
As the story goes, the man’s grandfather dug up the artifact while working on a bridge-building project near the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin. Rather than hand it over to the Japanese authorities, who occupied the region at the time, he decided to hide it at the bottom of a well.
The skull remained there for 80 years, until the man’s grandfather finally told his family of its existence as he lay on his deathbed. The man then retrieved the skull from the well before contacting Ji — one of China’s most prominent paleontologists — to report his discovery.
It’s a fabulous tale, but Ji suspects it may be a little too good to be real. In all likelihood, the man found the skull himself, but didn’t want to admit he’d failed to report his discovery to the authorities immediately, Ji implies. In China, all cultural relics are deemed to be the property of the state, and failing to hand over artifacts in a timely manner is illegal.
“This is self-protection,” Ji tells Sixth Tone. “I understand his reasoning.”
Sadly, like so much to do with the “dragon man,” verifying the details of the man’s story will be a challenge. After reaching out to Ji by phone in 2018, the man met him at a hotel to hand over the skull. But the man refused to reveal his name, and Ji has been unable to contact him since.
It’s not the only issue related to the “dragon man” that Ji is keen to clear up. The research undertaken by Ji — who works at Hebei GEO University in northern China — has also become the focus of much debate in recent days, with some scientists questioning his decision to declare the fossil belongs to a new species.
The skull is undeniably a major find: Its wide, square eye sockets and huge brow ridge is unlike any human cranium previously discovered.
After years of research, Ji has concluded the skull most likely belonged to a 50-year-old man who lived somewhere in northeast China around 150,000-300,000 years ago. Its anatomical features indicate that Homo longi, rather than Neanderthals, is modern humans’ closest relative.
If true, the findings could redefine our understanding of human evolution. It would also represent another career high for Ji, who made his name by discovering the Sinosauropteryx, a species of small, meat-eating dinosaur, and the first fossil to contain evidence that dinosaurs had feathers.
Yet others argue it’s too early to identify “dragon man” as a new subset of humans. They suggest the fossil may instead be the skull of a Denisovan — another extinct hominid species of which only a few genetic traces have previously been uncovered.
The fact Ji decided against publishing his research in leading scientific journal Nature, instead opting for a China-based title, has only added to the controversy. But the veteran paleontologist insists his critics have misunderstood his intentions.
Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone, Ji discussed his research, the debate surrounding the “dragon man,” and the future of Chinese paleontology. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: Since your research was published, many paleontologists have said it’s premature to call the “dragon man” a new human species. How do you respond to this?
Ji Qiang: Some Western scholars think the characteristics of the “dragon man” aren’t distinctive enough to label it a separate species, so they tend to define it as a subspecies of other known ancient humans. But to become a subspecies, an organism, by definition, usually needs to be isolated geographically from other subspecies. That’s something we’re unable to establish right now.
So, for now, we might as well call it a new species. If we make more discoveries about the “dragon man,” its classification may change. Changing a species’ designation is pretty common in paleontology.
Sixth Tone: Some say the skull belongs to the mysterious Denisovans. What’s your view?
Ji: Molecular biology and morphology are the two main strands of paleoanthropology. People believe that Denisovans existed based on molecular biological evidence, such as DNA. But we barely have any morphological data from this group of humans, because the only Denisovans fossils to have been found are a few teeth and bone fragments. Therefore, there is simply no way to compare the appearance of Homo longi with that of the Denisovans.
Some Western scientists say the “dragon man” is a Denisovan. But until DNA testing is complete, this is just speculation — I wouldn’t know whether it is right or wrong. We haven’t started testing the skull’s DNA, which is our next step. But honestly, the “dragon man” bones are so old, I have little confidence in being able to extract ancient genetic information from the skull.
Sixth Tone: Do you plan to search for more “dragon man” fossils?
Ji: Although we can’t confirm the exact place where the skull was discovered, we managed to verify that the site was near the Songhua River, close to the northeastern city of Harbin. In addition, we determined “dragon man’s” date of death to be sometime between 146,000 and 300,000 years ago. Therefore, we know roughly which rock layers may contain additional fossils. That’s how we plan to begin searching for more evidence.
We’ll also continue our search for ancient human fossils more generally. Based on current knowledge about the presence of ancient humans in China, our team will target four key regions next, namely, Shaanxi province and nearby areas north of the Qinling Mountains, Hubei province and adjacent areas south of the Qinling Mountains, Hebei province and other parts of northern China, and the Songhua River basin in the Northeast. The specific locations are classified.
Sixth Tone: How did you first find out about the “dragon man” skull’s existence?
Ji: I first saw a picture of the skull on my phone after the man sent it to me when he reached out in 2018. I instantly knew it was the real deal. I don’t fully believe the story about how his grandfather found the skull when building a bridge and hid it in a well for 80 years. Nevertheless, I knew it was a very important fossil that needed to be collected as soon as possible. Even if it was fished out of a latrine, it would still be of huge scientific value.
We then met in a hotel, but he wouldn’t tell me his name. This is self-protection. I understand his reasoning. Eventually, I convinced him to donate the specimen to Hebei GEO University. I can no longer contact him, because he has changed his phone number, but I sincerely hope he comes forward again. Regardless of the veracity of his story, I think he knows exactly where the skull was found. By telling us, he may aid the discovery of new scientific findings.
Sixth Tone: Usually, a significant archeological discovery like this would appear in a high-ranking journal, such as Nature. Did you submit your manuscript to them?
Ji: We first submitted the papers to Nature and went through four rounds of editing over more than a year. However, Nature unexpectedly sent us an email saying that they would only publish our articles if we agreed not to name the new species and conduct phylogenetic analysis. They didn’t explain why. They even asked us to disclose all other scans and data about the skull, which we weren’t ready to publish at the time. We could publish two or three articles using those materials alone. I thought their demands were disrespectful to us as scientists. It has never happened in the past. I think it’s politically driven.
So, I decided to withdraw the papers. While some peers advised me to go to Science, I think Nature and Science are the same. I then submitted the research to The Innovation. (The Innovation is a peer-reviewed journal affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.)
Sixth Tone: In recent years, many archeological and paleontological discoveries have emerged in China. Why do you think this is?
Ji: There are three main reasons. One is that China is a vast country, so it’s not surprising many treasures are buried underground. Also, Chinese researchers now have enough funding to carry out more scientific research, so we’re seeing an abundance of discoveries. Finally, after the reform and opening-up of China’s economy, the new generation of scientists has solid training and better education, with many having studied abroad. So as you’d expect, the conditions have improved.
Honestly, up to this point, we haven’t found many ancient human fossils of significant scientific value, so Chinese researchers haven’t been very influential in the field of human evolution on the global stage. “Dragon man” is a good start. If we can find a common ancestor to Homo sapiens and Homo longi in China or East Asia, our voice will become stronger and more influential. This is what I hope my colleagues and I will do in the future.
Contributions: Nie Yiming; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A reconstruction of Dragon Man. Courtesy of Zhao Chuang)