Massive hominin skull from China: is it a Denisovan?

In 1933 labourers unearthed a very large skull during the construction of a bridge near Harbin, Northern China. At that time, the area was under occupation by Imperial Japanese forces. To keep it out of the invaders’ hands the skull was quickly wrapped in a cloth and hidden in an old well. It was only in 2018 that the original finder’s grandson recovered it to pass on to archaeologists at  Hebei Geo University. It lacks a lower jawbone, so technically it is a cranium, but is very well preserved. The face has very large brow ridges – generally taken as a primitive feature – but also some more modern features. With a 1,420 ml brain case, it is significantly larger than most modern human crania. Apparently, it is of an adult male. As well as a big head, he had a large nose, as do Neanderthals: a possible adaptation to very cold conditions. Without waiting to see if the bones might yield DNA, five of the team who examined the cranium claimed it as a new species, Homo longi or ‘Dragon Man’; i.e. distinct from modern humans and Neanderthals and all known older hominins (Ni, X. et al. 2021. Massive cranium from Harbin establishes a new Middle Pleistocene human lineage in China. The Innovation, v. 2, article 100130; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100130. Ji, Q. et al. 2021. Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species. The Innovation, v. 2, article 100132; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100132). They based this phylogenetic interpretation on morphology alone. At least one of the team, Chris Stringer a leading hominin palaeoanthropologist at The Natural History Museum in London, demurred. The cranium is not unique and bears close similarity to another from the central Chinese province of Shaanxi, which was found in the late 1970s. In fact there are three other Chinese crania that resemble that from Harbin, although they are less well preserved.

All-sided views of the Harbin cranium. (Credit: Ni et al., Fig 2)

Dating the fossil was not easy, as the site where labourers discovered him was destroyed during construction of the bridge. Researchers used a variety of geochemical analyses, including from sediment stuck in his nasal cavity, to derive a likely stratigraphic profile from which the cranium may have been excavated. The best fit is with Middle Pleistocene sediments in the Harbin area. Uranium-series dating of the bone suggests that it is older than 146 ka (Shao, Q.  et al. 2021. Geochemical locating and direct dating of the Harbin archaic human craniumThe Innovation, v. 2, article 100131; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100131). So it is likely that this man and his companions did not cohabit China with anatomically modern humans, who arrived no more than about 50 ka ago. The highly robust nature of all the similar crania suggests that the individuals must have been large and physically active. Like the Neanderthals, they had adapted to harsh conditions over several hundred thousand years of repeated climate change. Even today, winters in northern China average around -16°C, and far inland conditions are semi-arid to arid. For them to migrate would have involved traversing some of highest, bleakest passes in the world. These people evolved to survive extreme climatic and environmental change, much as did the Neanderthals in West Asia and Europe. By comparison anatomically modern humans evolved in the more stable environments of Africa and the Middle East, surviving only the last ice age once they had migrated northwards. Those who made it to northern Siberia and crossed the Bering Strait via Beringia around the last glacial maximum did evolve physical traits that helped them survive, but minor ones compared with the earlier humans.

So what do these Chinese fossils represent? Using cranial features alone to propose distinct species smacks of the techniques of 19th and early 20th century anatomical anthropologists, albeit with powerful statistical analysis. We know that anatomically modern humans carry genetic signatures of interbreeding with at least two known ‘species’ with whom they cohabited Eurasia – Neanderthals and Denisovans. Indeed, traces in  the DNA of living African and Eurasian humans hint at other unknown and probably very ancient ‘ghost’ populations. Genetic, physical and probably cultural differences did not deter repeated interbreeding with these ‘others’. To be frank, erecting new human ‘species’ these days seems to serve little purpose. ‘Dragon Man’ is just as likely to represent the Denisovans as the fully sequenced DNA from a couple of bones from caves in Siberia and Tibet. The latter matched stretches of the DNA from living people of East Asia and parts of the Pacific. There are no other such live genetic tracers awaiting a different candidate to fill the role that we know Neanderthals and Denisovans to have filled. That may yet change, but the first job for the mainly Chinese consortium of scientists is to get genetic material from these crania and sequence it, or invite other highly successful palaeogeneticists who would leap at the opportunity.

See also: Jones, N. 2021. Mysterious skull fossils expand human family tree — but questions remain. Nature, v. 595, p. 50; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-01738-w

Sample I. 2021. Massive human head in Chinese well forces scientists to rethink evolution. The Guardian, 25 June 2021.

Ediacaran glaciated surface in China

It is easy to think that firm evidence for past glaciations lies in sedimentary strata that contain an unusually wide range of grain size, a jumble of different rock types – including some from far-off outcrops – and a dominance of angular fragments: similar to the boulder clay or till on which modern glaciers sit. In fact such evidence, in the absence of other signs, could have formed by a variety of other means. To main a semblance of hesitancy, rocks of that kind are now generally referred to as diamictites in the absence of other evidence that ice masses were involved in their deposition. Among the best is the discovery that diamictites rest on a surface that has been scored by the passage of rock-armoured ice – a striated pavement and, best of all, that the diamictites contain fragments that bear flat surfaces that are also scratched. The Carboniferous to Permian glaciation of the southern continents and India that helped Alfred Wegener to reconstruct the Pangaea supercontinent was proved by the abundant presence of striated pavements. Indeed, it was the striations themselves that helped clinch his revolutionising concept. On the reconstruction they formed a clear radiating pattern away from what was later to be shown by palaeomagnetic data to be the South Pole of those times.

29 Ma old striated pavement beneath the Dwyka Tillite in South Africa (credit: M.J Hambrey)

The multiple glacial epochs of the Precambrian that extended to the Equator during Snowball Earth conditions were identified from diamictites that are globally, roughly coeval, along with other evidence for frigid climates. Some of them contain dropstones that puncture the bedding as a result of having fallen through water, which reinforces a glacial origin. However, Archaean and Neoproterozoic striated pavements are almost vanishingly rare. Most of those that have been found are on a scale of only a few square metres. Diamictites have been reported from the latest Neoproterozoic Ediacaran Period, but are thin and not found in all sequences of that age. They are thought to indicate sudden climate changes linked to the hesitant rise of animal life in the run-up to the Cambrian Explosion. One occurrence, for which palaeomagnetic date suggest tropical latitude, is near Pingdingshan in central China above a local unconformity that is exposed on a series of small plateaus (Le Heron, D.P. and 9 others 2019. Bird’s-eye view of an Ediacaran subglacial landscape. Geology, v. 47, p. 705-709; DOI: 10.1130/G46285.1). To get a synoptic view the authors deployed a camera-carrying drone. The images show an irregular surface rather than one that is flat. It is littered with striations and other sub-glacial structures, such as faceting and fluting, together with other features that indicate plastic deformation of the underling sandstone. The structures suggest basal ice abrasion in the presence of subglacial melt water, beneath a southward flowing ice sheet

Estimating arsenic risks in China

Two weeks after Earth pages featured arsenic in groundwater below the Mekong Delta another important paper has emerged about modelling risk of arsenic contamination throughout the People’s Republic of China (Rodriguez-Lado, L. et al. 2013. Groundwater arsenic contamination throughout China. Science, v. 341, p. 866-868). Scientists based in the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and technology and the China Medical University follow up the results of geochemical testing of groundwater from almost 450 thousand wells in 12% of China’s counties; part of a nationwide aim to test millions of wells. That is a programme likely to last for decades, and their work seeks to develop a predictive model that might better focus such an enormous effort and help in other large regions where well sampling is not so advanced.

As well as the well-known release of arsenic-containing ions through the dissolution of iron oxy-hydroxides in aquifers that exhibit reducing conditions, aridity that causes surface evaporation can create alkaline conditions in groundwater that also desorbs arsenic from similar minerals. The early results from China suggested 16 environmental  factors available in digital map form, mainly geological, topographic and hydrogeochemical, that possibly encourage contamination; a clear indication of the sheer complexity of the problem.  Using GIS techniques these possible proxies were narrowed down to 8 that show significant correlation with arsenic levels above the WHO suggested maximum tolerable concentration of 10 micrograms per litre (10 parts per billion by volume). Geology (Holocene sediments are most likely sources), the texture of soils and their salinity, the potential wetness of soils predicted from topography and the density of surface streams carrying arsenic correlate positively with high well-water contamination, whereas slope, distance from streams and gravity (a measure of depth of sedimentary basins) show a negative correlation. These parameters form the basis for the predictive model and more than 2500 new arsenic measurements were used to validate the results of the analysis.

Estimated probability of arsenic in Chinese groundwater above the WHO acceptable maximum concentration (Credit:Rodriguez-Lado, et al. 2013)
Estimated probability of arsenic in Chinese groundwater above the WHO acceptable maximum concentration (Credit:Rodriguez-Lado, et al. 2013)

The results graphically highlight possible high risk areas, mainly in the northern Chinese provinces that are partly confirmed by the validation. Using estimated variations in population density across the country the team discovered that as many as 19.6 million people may be affected by consumption of arsenic contaminated water. In fact if groundwater is used for irrigation, arsenic may also be ingested with locally grown food. It seems that the vast majority of Chinese people live outside the areas of risk, so that mitigating risk is likely to be more manageable that it is in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

As well as being an important input to environmental health management in the PRC the approach is appropriate for other large areas where direct water monitoring is less organised, such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, and in the arid regions of South America.

Denisovans scooped?

In late 2010 it emerged from genomic studies of a finger bone from Denisova Cave in eastern Siberia that a probably archaic human group had shared genes with ancestors of some modern humans who colonised West Pacific islands around 45 Ka ago, well before the last glacial maximum. Melanesians, including tpeople living in Papua-New Guinea have DNA that contains on average around 6% contributed from fertile interbreeding with Denisovans. This ancient groups are suggested by comparative studies of their and Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA to have split from them as lond as a million years ago. Now it seems possible that much more complete fossils of Denisovans may have been discovered in China (Curnoe, D. And 16 others 2012. Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. PLoS ONE,

Skull from Red Deer Cave in Guanxi Province, southern China. Darren Curnoe

A block of sediment from Longlin Cave in Guanxi Province in southern China that was collected more than 30 years ago, has yielded skull fragments whose reconstruction reveals a most unusual individual, very different from anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals and from H. erectus. It had a wide flat face with highly prominent cheek bones, strong brow ridges and a diminutive chin.  Remains of three other individuals found by recent excavations in Maludong (Red Deer) Cave 300 km to the south of Longlin share similar characteristics. Yet there are similarities to moderns, for instance CT-scans show that the brain likely had a height and frontal lobes similar to ours, but different from Neanderthals.

These are not truly ancient fossils; radiocarbon and uranium-series dating give an age range from 14.3 to 11.5 ka, around the time of the Younger Dryas cold episode that preceded the Holocene. These two individuals lived when East Asia had long been home to fully modern humans.

The finds perhaps open a major new focus for human evolution, directed towards less-well studied older fossils from elsewhere in the East including those referred to by Jonathan Kingdon as ‘Mapas’ from both southern and northern China. Certainly it will boost palaeoanthropological research within China

Hi-tech future may be saved by ocean floor sediments

Global rare earth element production (1 kt=106...
China's growing REE market share. Image via Wikipedia

Since the now far-off founding of the Club of Rome and the re-emergence of Malthusian ideology, time and again there have been warnings about the imminent running out of resources that are essential for modern life. The latest concern one of the formerly haunted wings of the Periodic Table, central to petrogenetic geochemistry, but little else; the rare-earth elements. From early beginnings as the source for phosphors in the screens of colour televisions all 15 REEs now have a growing commercial role in applications ranging from precision guided weapons, night-vision goggles and stealth technology in the military sphere, through the satiation of artificial appetites for electronic gaming and mobile phones, to applications of super-efficient magnets in medial scanners and ‘green’ power generation. The crisis being discussed currently is not so much a shortage – REEs are not so rare – but the cornering of their mining by the Peoples’ Republic of China, which produces more than 95%  of RREs used at present (~120 thousand tons). Yet world reserves are estimated at almost 100 million t, of which China has 36 million. Mining is often in only a few known, high-grade deposits; for instance most of the US reserves of 13 million t are locked in the Mountain Pass Mine, California that is currently on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ regime, i.e. shut. This one-sided economy sends shudders through capital’s strategy forums, i.e. in the US, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, geochemists and oceanographers from Japan, the world’s most hi-tech country, have bent their collective will to finding alternative sources, and may have revealed one in an unexpected location (Kato, Y. et al. 2011. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 535-539).  Their work stems from ‘mining’ existing geochemical data from deep-sea drilling projects on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, that reveal a wide range of REE concentrations in the ooze coating the seabed: from <250 to >2000 parts per million. The richest pickings seem to lie in a swath either side of the East Pacific Rise at around 15°S, where the group estimate that a 1 km2 plot could yield about one fifth of current world annual production, even though REE concentrations lie way below their on-shore economic cut-off grade. Apart from the need for dredging at depths around 3-5 km on the abyssal plains, and the inevitability of destroying a largely unknown ecosystem, the positive aspect of these metal-rich oozes is that the REE can be extracted simply by acid leaching of the goethite (FeOOH) in which the bulk of the elements reside. Goethite is something of a geochemical ‘mop’ with a capacity for adsorbing elements of all kinds on grain surfaces; so much so that it is being considered as a means of cleaning up heavy-metal pollution. Both the REEs and the iron probably arise from seabed hot springs where oxidising conditions result in dissolved ferrous iron combining in ferric form with oxygen to form goethite, which in turn scavenges other dissolved ions. Many of the on-shore REE deposits are carbonatites (intrusions of carbonate-rich magmas) that contain fluoro-carbonates and phosphates that host the REE, or beach sands in which wave swash concentrates the durable heavy phosphates in so-called black-sand deposits. Carbonatites are rare, most occurring in ancient ‘shields’, as in southern Africa, Canada and China, but being so unusual are not difficult to find.  One in the Canadian Shield known as the Big Spruce Lake deposit provides phosphorus- and potassium-rich soil that encourages the growth f conifers and so creates a geobotanical anomaly of large trees where local climate generally supports only stunted ones.

The rising demand and currently restricted supply of REEs is creating an exploration boom for carbonatites as the metal prices rise inexorably. Yet it may also produce a shift to what seems to be an alternative kind of source; iron-rich deep-sea sediments, though more likely those preserved on-shore in ophiolite complexes than at the huge depths of the abyssal plains. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that oceanographers and geochemists have pointed to untold metal riches before: manganese nodules that litter huge tracts of the seabed and contain sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to maintain supplies for millennia. Despite a half-billion dollar investment in the 1960s and 70s, there is no nodule-dredging industry. There are however well-advanced plans for deep water mining of gold-rich hydrothermal sites, but miners will go just about anywhere to gloat over Marx’s ‘money commodity’