Take note, social science teachers and textbook writers: We have a new human species, Homo luzonensis, recently found in Callao Cave, in Peñablanca, Cagayan, and dating back some 50,000 years.
The report was published on April 11 in the science journal Nature, with two senior authors, Florent Detroit of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and Armand Mijares of the Archaeological Studies Program in UP Diliman. In addition, there were researchers from France, Australia and the Philippines.
This is the latest of several archaeological reports over the last few years that is changing our views about human evolution not just in the Philippines, but in Southeast Asia and in the world.
To backtrack, until about 10 years ago, the Philippines was uncharted territory when it came to fossil remains of humans and hominins, our most direct ancestors. When I was taking my graduate physical anthropology class in 1981 (I know, it sounds like the Stone Age), the Philippines was never mentioned in textbooks on human evolution.
Some Philippine history textbooks would mention that the oldest human remains were from Tabon Cave in Palawan. The usual reference is “Tabon Man,” referring to one skull discovered in 1962 by the late Robert Fox. But more bones from the cave have since been analyzed and dated to stretch back 16,500 to 47,000 years ago. All these bones are identified as Homo sapiens, belonging to modern humans (that’s us), and currently the only living Homo species.
While in graduate school, I had to memorize all kinds of fossil names, mainly from Africa going back to 7 million years. The Homo species were relatively more recent, but I would wonder: Why was there Homo erectus in China (the so-called Peking or Beijing Man), dating from 300,000 to 780,000 years ago, and Indonesia (Java Man) dating 700,000 to 1,000,000 years, but nothing from the Philippines?
In 2004, another report made headlines about a new species found in Flores, Indonesia, with an adult height of only 1.1 meters. There were many debates about the discovery, with some scientists arguing it was Homo sapiens with dwarfism, and others—they won out—saying it was a new species, Homo floresiensis. Was it possible that H. floresiensis, or a similar species, existed in the Philippines?
Just last year, Nature had another headline-making report, with Thomas Ingicco (also from the Natural Museum in Paris) as the main author. The article reported on tools and a butchered rhinoceros found in Rizal, Kalinga—evidence of “human presence” in the Philippines going back to at least 706,000 years ago, and a tantalizing find in the way it shows our islands had such early human habitation. Note that there were no actual human fossils found.
Callao first made the news in 2010 with a journal article by Armand Mijares reporting a third metatarsal (long toe bone) found that was dated to 67,000 years, older than the Tabon Cave remains. At that time, the researchers could not confirm if the bone belonged to Homo sapiens or not. But now, with more bones analyzed, they have concluded that these bones are not of Homo sapiens or of Homo floresiensis, and have suggested a new species: Homo luzonensis.
Expect more discussions, even debates, about human evolution in the Philippines and in the region. If human fossils are eventually found in Kalinga, they cannot be Homo sapiens (we came around only about 180,000 years ago). So are they Homo luzonensis? Or Homo erectus (like Java and Beijing Man)? Or still another new Homo species?
Homo names aside, all this research is important to help us understand our past. Now more than ever, we should throw out the “wave migration theory” and look into all the complexities of migration, not just of humans and hominins but of animals like the rhinoceros.
Taken together, human remains, tools, flora and fauna help us learn about the early inhabitants of our archipelago and, more importantly, what it means to be human.
The latest article on Homo luzonensis can be downloaded from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1067-9.
Last year’s article on Kalinga can be downloaded from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0072-8.
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