MY COLUMN FOR TODAY is something I?ve been planning on for more than a month. Presidential inaugural speeches are about today and tomorrow, but we also need to anchor ourselves in the past, and for the Philippines, we really know far too little about our prehistory.
I am going to share a story that takes on the qualities of a detective story. It?s about a toe bone recently found by archaeologists in Callao, Cagayan, and reported in the Journal of Human Evolution. The report?s main author is Armand Mijares of the Archaeology Studies Program at UP Diliman who worked with a multinational team from our National Museum, the Australian National University and the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The news has been picked up by international newspapers and magazines but hasn?t been featured locally.
Let me start out by asking you, ?When did humans first arrive in the Philippines??
Tough one, right? We can?t go on written records to answer that. What we do have is the archaeological record, which can be tools made by humans or, better still, human remains. Until recently, the oldest remains were that of Tabon Man from Palawan. Don?t think of an entire skeleton here?all we had, for many years, was a skullcap, which has been dated to 18,000 years ago using uranium series (which is more accurate than radiocarbon dating). Tabon Man was discovered in 1962; since then, the Tabon Cave has yielded many more artifacts, as well as a femur, this time dated 47,000 years. Unfortunately, the margin of error is quite large at 11,000 years so it can be as recent as 36,000 years or as old as 58,000 years.
The Tabon findings are impressive but have tended to cause a bit of an inferiority complex for Filipino archaeologists and anthropologists. As students, we would read about Java Man and Peking Man, which date way back in time. Java Man and Peking Man are actually Homo erectus (we are Homo sapiens, as is Tabon Man) which existed from 70,000 to 1.9 million years ago in Africa, western Asia, China and Indonesia.
We keep going back to the question: So when did humans arrive in the Philippines, or in the region? The oldest Homo sapiens remains in our part of the world come from the Niah cave in Borneo, dated to be about 42,000 years. In Australia, there?s Mungo Man, named after a lake in New South Wales, first dated to be 62,000 years old in 1999 but revised to 40,000 years when another test was conducted. (Archaeologists and physical anthropologists argue a lot about names and dates.)
Now we have this exciting report with a very staid journal title: ?New evidence for a 67,000-year old human presence at Callao Cave, Luzon, Philippines.?
Piece of history
The metatarsal is a bone that constitutes the lower part of our toe. Right MT3 is the middle toe on the right foot. It?s tiny so you can imagine how tedious archaeological excavations can be, and how observant archaeologists have to be.
Callao has been a major archaeological site for several years now. It has yielded stone tools dated to about 26,000 years ago, which meant humans had inhabited the area. Archaeologists from UP, the National Museum and the Australian National University had been working hard to ?find? those humans but all they kept coming up with were deer and pig bones. It was Phil Piper, an Australian zooarchaeologist currently teaching at UP, who identified one of the bones?this tiny metatarsal?as human. Mijares said he realized that they had ?discovered an important piece of our history.?
But the bone had to be sent overseas for dating, and there were difficulties doing this. It was in May 2009, while Mijares was in Callao doing fieldwork, that an e-mail arrived giving a more definite date. Mijares says the team members ?were shocked and elated upon learning that it was way older than we expected.? They celebrated ?with a few San Mig beers.?
The Callao toe bone tells us humans arrived in the Philippines as early as 67,000 years ago, but it also raises new questions.
First, it isn?t clear yet if ?Callao Man? (or Woman) was Homo sapiens or another species. A few years ago, an Australian team of archaeologists and biological anthropologists uncovered Homo floresiensis in Indonesia, closely resembling Homo sapiens but their adults were only about a meter tall. There?s still some controversy surrounding the findings, some disagreeing with the ?floresiensis? label and saying they were probably Homo sapiens as well. Homo floresiensis co-existed with Homo sapiens from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago.
The Callao bone has some similarities with that of Homo floresiensis, but with only one bone as evidence, no conclusions can yet be made. In fact, for now, the bone is identified simply as coming from a Homo species?it could be sapiens, floresiensis, or some totally new species.
Second, the finding in Cagayan suggests that humans may have arrived in the Philippines by sea. To explain that, we have to refer quickly to the last Ice Age. When there?s more ice in the polar areas, sea levels tend to be lower. That means there were land bridges between parts of the Philippines and mainland Southeast Asia. Look at the map and you?ll see that land bridges could have allowed human migration from the mainland into Palawan. Tabon Man (or his ancestors) probably took that route.
From Sundaland to Luzon
The findings in Callao require other explanations considering it?s so far from other land masses. Mijares speculates: ?My current hypothesis is they crossed the open sea from the Sundaland (tip of Palawan) to Mindoro then to Luzon. During the lowest sea level, that will still be about 60 km to Mindoro, and from there just short island hopping.?
Mijares is optimistic that there?s much more waiting to be discovered. It need not be just Cagayan, Mijares says. Isabela and other areas in the western Sierra Madre could yield more artifacts and bones.
In all my anthropology classes, I always tell the students that their generation is a lucky one. In the next few years, there will be more human fossil and archaeological discoveries in the world, and in the region that will require textbooks to be rewritten.
Mijares is proud that the particular excavation that yielded the metatarsal was funded by UP, but acknowledges the support of the National Museum, the Australian National University and the Museum of Natural History (Paris), all of whom have been pouring in money and technical expertise for various archaeological projects. The participation of the Australians tells us that they too are interested in helping to piece together the picture of human origins and migration. What we learn in the region provides new insights into humanity everywhere.
For people interested in going deeper into the report, the authors are Armand S. Mijares, Florent Detroit, Philip Piper, Rainer Grun, PeterBellwood, Maxime Aubert, Guillaume Champion, Nida Cuevas, Alexandra de Leon and Eusebio Dizon. The report appears in the Journal of Human Evolution, Vol. 30, dated April 8, 2010. Contact Mijares at 924-1836 for more information.
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