An international team of researchers led by Dr Thomas Ingicco from the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle, France discovered the oldest evidence of hominins occupation in the Philippines.
Since the Quaternary era (2.6 Million years ago), the string of islands that make up the modern nation of the Phillipines have been isolated from mainland Southeast Asia by deep sea straits. Previously, the oldest confirmed human presence in the Philippines was of Homo aff. sapiens and dated to 67,000 years ago. The Kalinga site, excavated since 2014 and dated to 709,000 years by several physico-chemical methods (electro-spin resonance, disequilibrium in the argon family and in the uranium family, palaeomagnetism), proves that the first colonization was actually ten times older, dating back to the early Middle Pleistocene.
The archaeological excavations have uncovered various animal remains, among which are the monitor lizard, the box turtle, the Philippine brown deer, the stegodon (a cousin of the elephant) and the rhinoceros, which has been extinct in the Philippines since at least 100,000 years ago. For this latter species, Rhinoceros philippinensis, an almost complete individual was recovered in association with dozens of prehistoric stone tools that researchers have determined were made on anvils. The rhinoceros skeleton further shows several butchery marks, such as cut marks on the ribs and on the foot bones and percussion marks to break the arm bones, allowing extraction of the marrow. These archaeological findings are indirect proof of a very ancient presence of early hominins on the island of Luzon.
How these animals and hominins would have reached the islands at this time is still unclear. While some herbivores are known to be excellent long distance swimmers and could have swum to the Philippines during one of the low sea level periods, this would not have been possible for humans. The researchers hypothesize that an ancestor of Homo sapiens could have mastered sailing skills, or that this colonization was accidental, perhaps thanks to natural rafts such as floating mangrove trees that are occasionally broken off by typhoons, a rare but well-documented phenomenon.
In a press briefing, National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) Director Jeremy Robert Barns discussed the details of the article which presented the oldest evidence for the occupation of hominins — species generally of the genus Homo including Homo Sapiens or modern humans — in the Philippines.
Barns said the article “relates the discovery of an almost complete skeleton of Rhinoceros Philippinensis with cut and percussion marks, stone tools and a tektite which are archaeological findings considered as indirect evidence for a very old presence of early humans on the island of Luzon far beyond the former earliest published evidence of 67,000 years relating to a hominid bone fragment from Callao Cave, Cagayan.”
The fossils were discovered in an archaeological site in Rizal, Kalinga province by a team of international and local researchers led by Dr. Thomas Ingicco from the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
Archaeological finds’ implications
Barns said “discovering the remains of the rhinoceros and the stone tools within the same layer points to association or coexistence of the two in the past.”
To identify the age of the finds, at least five dating methods were used, he said.
“One of them hit the nail on its head, the Australasian tektite which formed during a major meteoritic impact just before the onset of the Brunhes Normal polarity epoch at 781,000 years ago and the other four just supported it,” Barns said.
He added that the finds imply that “hominins were present in the Philippine Islands as early as 709,000 years ago.”
UP-Archaeological Studies Program representative Kathryn Manalo said that their team was not expecting to find anything valuable since the research project started in 2014.
“When we found the tooth of the rhinoceros, we thought it was just a typical pebble-like as what the locals said. But we waited for it to be exposed enough and be measured, and we were amazed because it was the first part of the rhino that we found,” Manalo said.
She said they were amazed when they found and analyzed all the bones which had been butchered or modified by early humans.
“It’s not every day that archaeologists find something of that importance. It was a surreal moment. At that time, we haven’t really realized the impact of what we found,” she added. “The very fact that we were able to push back our history to 700,000 years ago, this will bolster our nationalism, this will strengthen our identity as Filipinos.”
For his part, NMP Acting Assistant Director Angel Bautista said: “When we find something significant like this, it satisfies us…sometimes we even cry.”
Abstract Over 60 years ago, stone tools and remains of megafauna were discovered on the Southeast Asian islands of Flores, Sulawesi and Luzon, and a Middle Pleistocene colonization by Homo erectus was initially proposed to have occurred on these islands. However, until the discovery of Homo floresiensis in 2003, claims of the presence of archaic hominins on Wallacean islands were hypothetical owing to the absence of in situ fossils and/or stone artefacts that were excavated from well-documented stratigraphic contexts, or because secure numerical dating methods of these sites were lacking. As a consequence, these claims were generally treated with scepticism. Here we describe the results of recent excavations at Kalinga in the Cagayan Valley of northern Luzon in the Philippines that have yielded 57 stone tools associated with an almost-complete disarticulated skeleton of Rhinoceros philippinensis, which shows clear signs of butchery, together with other fossil fauna remains attributed to stegodon, Philippine brown deer, freshwater turtle and monitor lizard. All finds originate from a clay-rich bone bed that was dated to between 777 and 631 thousand years ago using electron-spin resonance methods that were applied to tooth enamel and fluvial quartz. This evidence pushes back the proven period of colonization of the Philippines by hundreds of thousands of years, and furthermore suggests that early overseas dispersal in Island South East Asia by premodern hominins took place several times during the Early and Middle Pleistocene stages. The Philippines therefore may have had a central role in southward movements into Wallacea, not only of Pleistocene megafauna, but also of archaic hominins.
In 2013, a survey of the Cagayan Valley near the Rizal Municipality (Kalinga Province) led to the discovery of a concentration of vertebrate bones and stone artefacts scattered on the surface near what became our new excavation site. The Kalinga site has been excavated annually since 2014 and has resulted in the discovery of in situ megafauna and associated stone artefacts.
The 57 stone artefacts account for six cores, 49 flakes and two possible hammer stones that all originated from unit F. With the exception of the two possible hammer stones, all artefacts lack a patinated lustre and have a fresh appearance, indicating that any transport was minimal. The knapping strategies were oriented towards short and unorganized core reduction, resulting in non-standardized flake morphologies and dimensions, and all artefacts lacked any intentional retouch.
Also recovered from the unit F excavation area was a 600-g pebble among hundreds of pebbles that were all lighter than 200 g, and which we interpret as a possible manuport.
Among the more than 400 bones recovered from unit F, the most striking remains were of a disarticulated, approximately 75% complete skeleton of a single R. philippinensis individual.
Thirteen of the excavated rhinoceros bones, all of which in life had a thin cover of soft tissue (that is, the ribs and metacarpals) display cut marks. Both rhinoceros humeri have similar percussion marks on the anterior surface for the right humerus and on the posterior surface for the left humerus, and both were presumably made with the intention to smash the bones and gain access to the marrow. This percussion action resulted in the breakage of the left humerus into five pieces, which is the only bone found fragmented; however, the fragments were still clustered together within a small 1-m² area of the excavation. On the right humerus, however, percussion did not result in the fragmentation of the bone. To constrain the age of the bone bed and the stone artefacts it contained, we applied three different dating methods to various materials.
Our excavations at Kalinga and the numeric dating results clearly provide securely dated evidence for human colonization of the Philippines by the early Middle Pleistocene epoch, and long before the appearance of modern humans in both the local context and wider Island South East Asia region. Although the identity of these archaic toolmakers remains unknown, it is likely that they dispersed over at least one sea barrier to reach Luzon Island.
Despite the current evidence, it still seems too farfetched to suggest that H. erectus, or another unknown Pleistocene ancestral candidate for the Kalinga toolmakers (for example, Denisovans), were able to construct some sort of simple watercraft and deliberately cross sea barriers to reach these islands. However, considering evidence of overseas dispersal during the Middle Pleistocene stage is increasing in number such a hypothesis cannot currently be rejected.
(Source: “Earliest known hominin activity in the Philippines by 709 thousand years ago”, by T. Ingicco et al.)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides