Discovery by National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) and Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) of bones and stone tools in February 2014 was finally verified and published this year, confirming the presence of early humans in the Philippines during the mid-Pleistocene epoch around 700,000 years ago.

Latest scientific discovery by paleoanthropologist team from MNHN and NMP has confirmed existence of early humans in northern Luzon during the mid-Pleistocene epoch. The remains of rhinoceros philippinensis were unearthed in the municipality of Rizal in Kalinga province. Having matched with the stone tools found alongside it, and bearing cut marks and percussion marks, it is strong to assume that these were the same tools used to butcher and consume the rhinoceros. The discovery also implies the presence of early humans—must have been homo erectus who existed during the Pleistocene epoch—who were intelligent and equipped enough to hunt, butcher, and consume the said species of megafauna.

"We now have a better understanding of the land that our country sits on now," said Mylene Lising from the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, Ateneo de Manila University and a member of the archaeology team. "Previously we have the 67,000 year old meta tarsal discovered by Dr. Mijares in 2007 and that was evidence of early human occupation in the islands. Now we have evidence of human presence in the Philippines ten times older than previously thought."

The study entitled, "Earliest known hominin activity in the Philippines by 709 thousand years ago", by Thomas Ingicco et al. was published in the international journal Nature on May 2, 2018. By various dating methods such as electron spin resonance of quartz grains, single crystal 40Ar/39Ar dating, and electron spin resonance uranium-series dating of the enamel of the rhinoceros' tooth, the age of the rhinoceros fossil was confirmed at 709,000 years old and the stone tools were from the same period. Even the date of the clayey sediment were also confirmed to be from the mid-Pleistocene epoch. The area looked like the large mouth of a river flowing towards the larger paleo-Cagayan River. Trees were most certainly present 709,000 years ago, but this landscape was repeatedly disturbed by volcanic eruptions from a still unknown area.

The fossilised remains which include bones and teeth was 75 per cent complete and displayed butcher marks allegedly from 57 stone tools found near it. Large pebble stones used as anvil and stone flakes for defleshing were among those that have been discovered. Besides rhinoceros philippinensis, the 16 square-metre excavation site was also found with fragments of deer, tortoise, lizard, and the extinct relative of elephants—the stegodon.

Indeed it is a breakthrough discovery of great significance for archaeology division of NMP, however, it raises questions of is it really homo erectus the butchers and toolmakers, was the rhinoceros hunted or scavenged, and how did the animals and humans reach Luzon (and from exactly where were they?).

"When we find something significant, it satisfies us, we cry, and after a week long exploratory work we find fossils… We are hoping to get more significant results," said Angel Bautista, Acting Assistant Director of NMP and has been on this project since the '80s.

"Hopefully, we can have evidence as well of how these early hominins interacted with the environment, their ecology, so it’s really just the beginning. The research will continue from here," Lising continued. 

Although early humans were mobile and nomadic, the team remains to be positive that they will find evidence of humans also from the mid-Pleistocene epoch or beyond. Homo erectus fossils have been found in Indonesia and China and so it is likely to also discover it here in the Philippines. As NMP Director Jeremy Robert Barns said, finding bones of an actual human affiliated to the rhinoceros found in Kalinga is a vital proof of early human occupation. 

"Hopefully we discover more materials that we could review and analyze, and that would give us a clearer picture of how their life was during that time," Marian Reyes, another member of the team, added.

"In a way this study bolster our national identity," Kat Manalo, another member of the team, answered when asked how is this discovery relevant and impactful on the present generation. "It greatly impacts our understanding of our nation and race. It implies that our land was inhabited during the most recent 'Ice Age' and gives us an idea that these early humans were quite advanced as they were able to use stone tools."

For Manalo, although this has nothing to do with our species homo sapiens that existed hundreds of thousands years later, it still gives us a sense of pride as a Filipino. The islands of the present-day Philippines have long been considered a significant part of the hypothesised spreading of hominins through the region during the Pleistocene, which lasted from about 2.5 million to about 12,000 years ago. With repeated series of glaciations, walkable land bridges were formed as well as swimmable stretches of water or otherwise crossable for a wide variety of species. Hence, the recent discovery strengthens this theory and supports Cagayan Valley as home of ancient fossils.

International Museum Day

This May 18, the Museum of Natural History will finally open to the public in time with the International Museum Day. The recent discovery of early human occupation is a fitting prime addition to the museum's array of exhibitions. 

"I think the National Museum is experiencing a second golden age because since the Arroyo administration up to now, the financial support to the Museum has been strong and solid and sustained," Barns claimed. "So we’re very confident that funding from institutions for this research will not be a problem. Besides the government, we also rely on private enterprises and local government units in continuing our researches and excavations."

The newly-opened facility of the National Museum houses some flora and fauna endemic in the country, replicas of geological and natural landscapes, and other important treasures of natural history that the Philippines would like the world to see.

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