Dragon Man / Homo longi

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Carl Zimmer, brother of our own Ben Zimmer, has an article in the New York Times (6/25/21) about an important archeological find in China:

"Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ Skull in China May Add Species to Human Family Tree"

It's about this fellow, who has been dubbed "Dragon Man", and thereby hangs a tale:

Artist's impression of what Dragon Man may have looked like.
Source: "'Dragon Man’ Skull Discovery in China Tells Story of Unknown Human Ancestor", by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal (6/25/21)

Carl's article is prefaced by these two introductory paragraphs:

A laborer discovered the fossil and hid it in a well for 85 years. Scientists say it could help sort out the human family tree and how our species emerged.

Scientists on Friday announced that a massive fossilized skull that is at least 140,000 years old is a new species of ancient human, a finding that could potentially change prevailing views of how — and even where — our species, Homo sapiens, evolved.

It begins:

The skull belonged to a mature male who had a huge brain, massive brow ridges, deep set eyes and a bulbous nose. It had remained hidden in an abandoned well for 85 years, after a laborer came across it at a construction site in China.

The researchers named the new species Homo longi and gave it the nickname “Dragon Man,” for the Dragon River region of northeast China where the skull was discovered.

This is where Language Log comes in.  I will not talk about the (biological!) taxonomy and (anthropological!) morphology of the skull, which are exceedingly complicated, but only focus on some peculiarities about the name that has been given to the man.

This BBC article (6/25/21) — "Scientists hail stunning 'Dragon Man' discovery", by Pallab Ghosh — explains that "longi" comes from lóng 龙 ("dragon"), because the skull was found near Hēilóng Jiāng 黑龙江 / 黑龙江 ("Black Dragon River") in the province of the same name, but what happened to the hēi 黑("black") part of the name?

The authors of the main scientific papers on the skull give the following etymological note:

The species name is derived from the geographic name Long Jiang, which is a common usage for the Heilongjiang Province and literally means “dragon river.”

Source:  Qiang Ji, Wensheng Wu, Yannan Ji, Qiang Li, and Xijun Ni, "Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species", The Innovation (XINN 100132), p. 1.

This does not ring true.  The official short name for Heilongjiang Province is simply Hēi 黑 ("Black").  I asked a number of people from China if they ever heard of Heilongjiang Province being referred to as Long Jiang, and they all — except one — said that it would sound strange or wrong, though one hazarded that Lóng jiāng 龙江 "seems to denote different things, a town and a river".  The sole exception was a native of Heilongjiang Province who averred that "Only people from Heilongjiang themselves would call their province as Longjiang".

Here are some more elaborate etymological notes on the river and province name:

"Heilongjiang" literally means Black Dragon River, which is the Chinese name for the more well known western name, Amur. The one-character abbreviation is  (pinyin: Hēi). The Manchu name of the region is Sahaliyan ula (literally, "Black River"), from which the name of Sakhalin is derived, and the Mongolian name with the same meaning is Qaramörin. It is sometimes spelt "Heilungkiang", especially in older English texts.


The river's name is a calque of Manchu ᠰᠠᡥᠠᠯᡳᠶᠠᠨ ᡠᠯᠠ (sahaliyan ula, “black water”). The province got its name from the river's name.


For whatever reason, there lately has been some "black" avoidance in Chinese society. (See under "Selected readings" below.)

Selected readings

[Thanks to Roscoe Nicholson, Diana Shuheng Zhang, Zihan Guo, Nick Tursi, and Chenfeng Wang]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 12:04 pm

    Amazingly, the paper is split into two Least Publishable Units. Here's the other, which contains Carl Zimmer's reconstruction, the phylogenetic analysis, and all the biogeography stuff.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 12:29 pm

    The second paper points out a few good reasons to think that H. longi is what the Denisova people are.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 12:40 pm

    No, three Least Publishable Units; the one on the geology and the dating is here. I have no idea what the editors were thinking.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 12:48 pm

    The part perhaps of greatest interest to present company is on p. 9 of the supplementary information of the second paper:

    Story of the discovery
    The Harbin cranium reported in this paper was allegedly discovered in 1933. A man (kept anonymous by his family), who worked for the Japanese occupiers as a labour contractor, discovered the cranium when his team of workers were constructing a bridge for the Japanese near Harbin City in northeastern China. The bridge was later named as Dongjiang Bridge. The man was shrewd and realized the potential value of the discovery, probably because the discovery of the first Peking Man cranium in 1929 had attracted huge interest in China. Instead of passing the cranium to his Japanese boss, he buried it in an abandoned well, a traditional Chinese method of concealing treasures. After the establishment of the modern Chinese republic, the man returned to farming and did his best to hide his experience as a labour contractor working for the Japanese invaders. With his difficult life experience, the man never had a chance to re-excavate his secret treasure. The cranium thus remained unknown to the public and science for decades, but it survived the Japanese invasion, the civil war, the communist movement, the cultural revolution, and rampant fossil dealing in recent years. The third generation of the man’s family learnt of his secret discovery before his death and recovered the fossil in 2018. The corresponding author (Qiang Ji) learnt of the cranium, and successfully persuaded the family to donate the specimen to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University.

  5. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 4:20 pm

    Huh, I had no idea that Ben (who I've met) and Carl (who I often read) were brothers.

  6. Thomas Rees said,

    June 26, 2021 @ 5:59 pm

    The form of the specific name struck me. Homo longi should mean “Long’s human” as if it’s named after a male person called Long. A toponym should be in adjectival form like H. neanderthalensis or H. floresiensis. Is it possible that the “anonymous” discoverer is in fact called Long (龍/龙)?

  7. David Marjanović said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 2:49 am

    That's possible, at least if he's called Xiǎolóng or suchlike. But it's much more likely that the authors of the paper just don't know Latin that well – or that they do and decided there was nothing wrong with using the genitive of a place name as a species name. It's not terribly rare to do that.

  8. Craig Close said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 4:54 pm

    If the skull was found in Heilongjiang Province, then the local people would have described the location as long jiang. Ergo, the scientific naming.

  9. AntC said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 6:49 am


    "The bones, described by one expert as “a major discovery”, have a distinctive combination of Neanderthal and early human features which set them apart from the Homo sapiens that lived in the region at the same time."

    "said Dr Yossi Zaidner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The idea is what we catch here are the last survivors of a population that contributed to the development of Neanderthals. They were living alongside Homo sapiens.”" And sharing cultural artefacts like stone tools, flakes and points.

    So they gotta have shared some way of communicating(?)

    Another write-up claims this might explain Homo sapiens DNA found in Neanderthals in Europe long before Homo s. migrated there — "Nesher Ramla individuals may have played an important role in the human story."

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 7:51 am

    David Marjanović said, "The second paper points out a few good reasons to think that H. longi is what the Denisova people are."

    I wonder, did the Denisovians leave any DNA traces in East Asian Homo sapiens, like the Neanderthals in European populations? I remember reading somewhere that, if you're of European ancestry, you can count on about 2-3% of your DNA being of Neanderthal stock. At least, that's what I tell my (100% East African Bantu) wife when she wonders why I don't want to turn the thermostat up again.

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 8:12 am

    @ Benjamin E. Orsatti — They certainly did, up to (I think) about 8% in some modern Papuan populations, 6% in some Melanesian poulations, and traces detectable in most Eurasians: research is of course still ongoing.

    It's beginning to look as if Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis and H. denisova (not yet a formal designation) readily interbred, with modest reductions in fertility, wherever they co-existed. One of the seven Denisovan fossils so far firmly identified is of an individual with a Denisovan father and Neanderthal mother.

  12. Rodger C said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 9:16 am

    For something completely different, I wonder how we're to pronounce Longi in good old scientific Anglo-Latin? "Loong-eye"?

  13. David Marjanović said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 5:11 pm

    good old scientific Anglo-Latin

    Oh, don't worry about that. The scientists themselves don't learn that anymore; for many widely known scientific names you can hear two pronunciations by English native speakers at the same conference.

    …and three pronunciations for data by T-flapping Americans alone!

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 10:34 am

    From a native Beijinger who is resident there now:

    I never call 黑龙江 just "龙江", and I've never heard of it. I don't think other people do, either.

    ADDED 7/13/21, from WGJ:

    Longjiang is in fact a frequently used nickname for Heilongjiang, even
    in official language. For example, the provincial broadcasting company
    is named Longjiang Network:


    And the logo of the provincial TV is simply the character "long" in
    grass script:


    If you watch Heilongjiang's provincial TV or listen to provincial
    radio, in various programs, moderators would refer to "Longjiang"
    instead of Heilongjiang. And that has been the case since at least
    early 2000s – long before XJP became General Secretary, in case you're

    But the real rationale for naming the Dragon Man is – at least in part
    – to maximize publicity. This was openly admitted by Ji Qiang, one of
    the lead authors, at the conference held by the research team on the
    day of the papers' publication, as China News Agency reports:


    "… so people would immediately understand this newfound species to
    be from China."

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