Homo luzonensis
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 17, 2019 - 12:00am

In the heat of the campaign season, it’s heartening to see Filipinos getting excited about something so far removed from politics.

And the excitement is all about a few pieces of fossilized human bones that managed to survive the elements and scavenging beasts over 67,000 years.

It can be hard to impress those who have been to the great museums of the world, where different types of dinosaurs and human ancestors at various steps of the evolutionary ladder have been reconstructed from near-complete sets of fossilized skeletons.

But the respected scientific journal Nature was impressed enough to put on its cover the verified discovery of a previously unheard of cousin of Homo sapiens. Now officially called Homo luzonensis, after this big island in our archipelago, the fossils were unearthed in the Callao Cave, in the part of the Sierra Madre mountain range that sits in Cagayan province.

The so-called Callao Man, small at less than three feet in height, is a new creature in human evolution. And it has given its discoverer, Filipino archeologist and University of the Philippines professor Armand Salvador Mijares, rock star status in international archeology.

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Mijares was preparing his dissertation for his doctorate in 2003 and decided to explore the sites in Peñablanca, Cagayan where diggings had been previously undertaken. In the 1980s, only graves dating back to the 13th to the 16th century (ancient for us, but not for archeologists) were unearthed at the Callao Cave.

Assessing telltale signs such as the depth of the inner chamber from the antechamber, however, Mijares thought humans had used the cave much earlier than that.

He talked to his mentor at the National Museum, archeologist and curator Eusebio Dizon of the paleontology division, who joined him in his undertaking.

With funding from the Australian National University, where he obtained his doctorate in archeology and paleoanthropology, Mijares and a team of Filipino, Australian and French archeologists began sifting through the limestone, in what would turn out to be the defining moment of his career.

Digging for fossils is a labor of love and extreme patience. Dizon gave up on the site, but Mijares persisted. In 2007, he unearthed a foot bone in the cave sediment. It was initially believed to belong to a small-bodied Homo sapiens.

But in 2011, the team unearthed more bones and five teeth. Four more years passed before another molar was found, confirming that at least two adults and a juvenile belonged to the same previously undiscovered human species.

This theory had to go through about four more years of rigorous laboratory testing, DNA analysis, uranium-dating and consultations with archeological experts worldwide.

Last week, after exhaustive tests, the verified discovery was announced to the world.

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Mijares and Dizon faced “The Chiefs” last Monday on Cignal TV’s One News. Both were ecstatic about the find, and Dizon was all praises for Mijares, who used to work for him at the National Museum.

No Filipino has ever landed on the cover of Nature, Dizon told us. The extraordinary find, the magazine cover story about it – “this is like a dream come true in science,” he said. “I am happy that in my lifetime, nakita ko pa ito.”

Will the find encourage Filipinos to take up archeology? Dizon, who has a doctorate in anthropology, major in archeology from the University of Pennsylvania, can only hope so. Upon his return from the US, he had set up the Archeological Studies Program in the University of the Philippines in Diliman in 1995.

An interesting issue that the find has raised is where the original inhabitants of our islands came from. Mijares said there is archeological evidence that Homo sapiens lived in Palawan as early as 50,000 years ago, and that Cagayan had a population that knew how to cook 33,000 years ago.

Contrary to what we learned in school, however, Dizon said the Callao Man indicates that human migration in our archipelago started from southern Taiwan through Batanes in Northern Luzon and spread westward toward the Malay peninsula instead of the other way around.

Both Dizon and Mijares stressed that there has never been a landmass connecting the Philippines to the Asian mainland, contrary to what the Chinese are proposing.

So how did humans first reach Luzon? Mijares said either there was accidental migration from the Asian mainland, perhaps through a tsunami, although this would require a large number of survivors to set up a new settlement in our archipelago. Or else someone discovered how to make fiber for rope and string together pieces of wood for a rudimentary raft to cross the sea.

Archeologists also still don’t know what happened to the rhinoceros and elephants that roamed our islands about 790,000 up to 1.2 million years ago.

More archeologists would help. Indonesia, where “the hobbit” – a human species about three and a half feet tall, whose almost complete skeleton was discovered on the island of Flores (hence the name Homo floresiensis) in 2003 – already had 600 archeologists, a significant number of them with doctorates, way back in 1995.

How many doctors of archeology do we have in the Philippines? As of last Monday, we were looking at all two of them in our TV show.

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It’s a shame, because Mijares and Dizon are convinced that there are archeological treasures to be found not just in the limestone caves of Bulacan, where Mijares has a new project, but also in Samar, Iloilo, Panay Island, the General Santos fish port, Antipolo and – believe it or not – Cubao and Elliptical Road in Quezon City as well as Guadalupe in Makati.

They’re not kidding when they say that there could be an archeological treasure buried just 290 cm beneath the surface – the depth where the Callao Man’s fossils were found – right in your own backyard.

Dizon pointed out that Republic Act 8492 or the National Museum Act of 1998, which amended RA 4846 or the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act of 1966, requires any earth-moving activity nationwide to be inspected first and be cleared by an archeologist accredited by the National Museum. But he said the law has not been applied, even if the inspection period is limited to prevent delays in the implementation of construction projects.

Having more archeologists would also help. Perhaps the discovery of Homo luzonensis would encourage more Filipinos to consider a career in archeology. People can discover the thrill of unearthing prehistoric treasures.

“This adds to the story of humankind,” Dizon told us. “We are part of the whole process of human evolution.”

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