THE discovery of a new human species in Callao Cave, Cagayan, named Homo luzonensis, puts the spotlight on the Philippines in the global scientific debate on human evolution.
This is one of the implications of the groundbreaking conclusion of the excavations made by a University of the Philippines-led international interdisciplinary team since 2007.
Armand Salvador B. Mijares, UP Archaeological Studies Program associate professor and head of the Callao Archaeological Project, said the discovery “situates the Philippines as a major area for human evolutionary research.”
“We now have a new species and new fossils that could start a new debate on how humans evolved and adapted to new
situations. This is our contribution to our Filipino heritage and to the world heritage,” Mijares told reporters on Thursday, when the discovery was unveiled to the public after their findings were published in Nature, the international journal of science.
“And this will be a controversial discovery as the pros and cons of the identification of the new Homo species will have a lively debate,” Mijares added.
Mijares said their discovery adds a new member to the genus Homo and could question earlier concepts that human evolution is a linear process.
“It also raised more questions to answer, such as Homo luzonensis’ lineage and how and when it reached Luzon island,” he said. “So, where does it fit in the family tree? At this time we do not know, as we would need more research to answer those questions,” he added.
Nonetheless, Homo luzonensis now becomes the earliest human remains in the country, as Mijares’s team determined the fossils to be 50,000 to 67,000 years old through uranium-series dating, a method used to calculate age via radiaoactive decay of uranium.
The Homo sapiens remains found in Palawan island, commonly known as Tabon Man, were estimated to be 30,000 to 40,000 years old.
Mijares pointed out that the time-frame could indicate that the two human species “overlapped” together, but it is not conclusive if they had direct contact due to lack of available evidence.
Mijares said the hominin fossils and teeth were from at least three individuals that were excavated in 2007, 2011 and 2015. The individuals were nicknamed Ubag after a mythical caveman, according to Mijares.
The fossils were dug up from a sedimentary level located 3 meters below the current surface of the Callao Cave floor.
Homo luzonensis had a mix of primitive features resembling Australopithecus and more modern ones closer to Homo sapiens, Mijares explained.
“This singular combination of traits distinguishes it from other representatives of the genus Homo, especially its contemporaries known in Southeast Asia like Homo floresiensis, which was discovered in Indonesia in 2004,” he added.
Mijares said the Homo luzonensis could not be the ancestors of modern-day Filipinos, as the lineage of the newly discovered human species has reached a dead-end and they no longer exist.
Tourism and protection
National Museum of the Philippines Director Jeremy Barns hailed the discovery as a game-changer in the field of science, especially in human evolution.
“This is a major major event in the history of science in the Philippines. The Philippines is put on the [human evolution] map,” Barns said in his speech.
“Our sites are deserving of higher importance. This is testament to the efforts of our [Filipino] archaeologists,” Barns added. Barns said that there is now a need to further strengthen the protection of archaeological sites, especially Callao Cave, following the discovery of the new human species.
“We will be in touch with the Department of Tourism and the local government units in Cagayan to further tighten protection of this site and use the publication of this article to promote the importance of this site to the Filipino people and globally.
Mijares proposed that the Callao Cave be developed, like the Tabon Cave, into a proper site museum, especially since 200 tourists on average enter the cave daily.
“You can have proper educational materials there. Unlike Tabon Cave, Callao Cave has 200 people entering everyday, and with that you can educate 200 people a day on our heritage,” he said.
“I think we can reach more people by developing the area as a proper site museum,” he added.
Image credits: Nonoy Lacza