A sense of prehistory
Now, perhaps you might think, is not the time for fossils. Not when the truth of our time is being buried, and our values trampled upon. Not when the present is too contentious, too fraught, for us to worry about the past. Not when the recent days, years, and decades hold enough controversy for us to be concerned about distant epochs.
Still, the discovery of butchered animal remains and stone tools in Kalinga, dating back to around 700,000 years ago, remind us of a time when humans had far simpler concerns. They worried about food and defended themselves, not from large countries, but from large animals. They must have lived in huts and caves and had no concept of property, let alone luxury.
Surely, they, too, had problems: famine, disease, the struggle to communicate, and a vulnerability to the elements — volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, typhoons, and cataclysms. Like Cain and Abel, they must also have had quarrels. Our limited knowledge notwithstanding, their existence provides insights that are relevant for our time.
In the first place, they invalidate all claims of originality — whether from the colonizers who in their conceit saw our country as having no history before their coming, the missionaries who imposed their beliefs on us, or the imagined “Malays” who came by balangay to our shores. The hominids, Homo erectus or otherwise, have a far more ancient claim to our land, even if they themselves must have come on boats or land bridges. Which begs the question: Who — or what — is “local” in this country? Perhaps no one. But then again, perhaps everyone. What we have in common is that we are all migrants, and instead of fighting, what we must ask is how we can work together to partake of the limited resources in our land.
The discovery also debunks previous knowledge about the country, and humanity at large. Previously it was held that bones found in Callao Cave in Cagayan, dated to 67,000 years ago, are the oldest traces of human existence in the archipelago. Before that, it was the Tabon Man in Palawan, believed to be around 47,000 years old. But how valid are these dates? Perhaps someday they would be deemed older — or younger; perhaps another discovery will change the timeline anew. The shifting nature of scientific knowledge does not nullify the need to study, but it urges us to never stop learning.
Looking at the fossils themselves furnish additional insights. For instance, the animals whose bones were found: a rhinoceros and an elephant-like stegodon, both long extinct. If our paleolithic ancestors, Homo erectus or otherwise, managed to eliminate entire species, how much more the habitat destruction, global warming, and unsustainable development that we have precipitated? Will they someday dig up the bones of the Philippine eagles and the many other species that we could have saved, but failed to? Our very world is endangered, and we have to redouble our efforts so that our descendants will see it, not as a paradise lost, but as a planet redeemed.
How else can the hominids speak to us? They do not know that the discovery of fire and invention of tools will lead to weapons of mass destruction, as well as technologies of great benefit. Still naive to the wonders of agriculture, they cannot imagine that someday our problem will not be the lack of food for all, but too much of it for some — and too little of it for many. Emerging from their bipedal journeys, perhaps they have no analogy for our inequities and conflicts, our complex yet highly flawed institutions, our sophisticated ways of inflicting harm on one another.
Even so, perhaps the tenacity of their fossils can inspire us to believe that our own age will someday be excavated, and the intervening epochs will not fully efface the traces of our lived experiences. As people try to obfuscate the facts, burn our history, rewrite the laws, and stifle our freedoms, I draw both comfort and courage from the thought that the injustices of today, like the broken bones of bygone eras, will ultimately resurface to remind our forebears of the struggles of our time.
They buried the truth, only to preserve it for the ages to come.
Comments to [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.