Fossils found in China and Israel dating from around 140,000 years ago are adding to the ranks of hominins that mixed and mingled with early modern humans.
The fossils from Israel hint that a previously unknown group of hominins, proposed to be the direct ancestors of Neanderthals, might have dominated life in the Levant and lived alongside Homo sapiens1,2. Meanwhile, researchers studying an extremely well-preserved ancient human skull found in China in the 1930s have controversially classified it as a new species — dubbed Dragon Man — which might be an even closer relative to modern humans than are Neanderthals3,4.
But both findings have sparked debate among scientists. The studies are based on analyses of the size, shape and structure of fossilized bones — methods that are subject to individual judgement and interpretation. As is often the case for fossil finds, there is no DNA evidence.
Separating early hominin specimens into unique species, working out if and how they interacted with others, and tracing their evolution are all difficult and contentious: “It’s very messy,” says Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.