Homo luzonensis ‘Lifts’ Filipino Researchers to Pantheon of Discoverers of New Human Species

(SDN) — PERHAPS it’s the closest thing to real magic.

For the discovery by Filipino researchers of a new species of human now named Homo luzonensis evokes overwhelming happiness and pride.

How can one not be ecstatic and be proud at the same time, considering that of all the United Nations-recognized 195 countries it’s the Philippines which the discovered new human species had called home.

They inhabited the island of Luzon from as old as 67,000 years ago to as late as 50,000 years when they were believed to have gone the ways of the dinosaurs.

Maybe there are other new hominins to be found someplace else outside the country’s boundaries; but for now the Philippines owns the fourth hominin found on Planet Earth. Or fifth, counting Homo floresiensis unearthed in 2003 on Flores island, Indonesia.

The first, Australophitecus afarensis; the second, Homo erectus; and the third, Homo sapiens. Every human being on Earth descended from H. sapiens, scientists said.

Homo luzonensis Mijares on board

Archaeologist Dr. Armand ‘Mandy’ Salvador B. Mijares of UP Diliman, leader of the Project Team that discovered  Homo luzonensis in Callao Cave, Cagayan, Northern Luzon. (SDN)

Did the discovery in the Philippines bring a magical joyful excitement and pride?

Well, maybe yes, maybe not. But surely yes, for the diggers — not ordinary diggers, mind you — whose indomitable spirit did not waver despite the dirt not yielding a sliver of fossil; they continued to challenge great odds, their pick axes and shovels like magicians’ wands finally turning dreams to reality.

But one thing is sure — this can’t be overemphasize — there is ecstasy and pride among at least scientists, researchers, and other academicians in the country surrounding the two little guys and a girl who lived in the Philippines from 67,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Thus, in the process, H. luzonensis has virtually lifted the Filipino researchers to the pantheon of the discoverers of new human species.

Archaeologist Dr. Armand “Mandy” Salvador B. Mijares, Scientist I and associate professor at the UP Archaeological Studies Program (UP ASP), led the Project Team responsible for the breakthrough gem of a find.

Other Filipino members of the project included Dr. Eusebio Z. Dizon, Scientist III/Curator I, Archaeology Division, National Museum of the Philippines, and Emil Robles, university research assistant.

But it’s not only the Filipinos; it’s an international team joined by British, French, and Australian scientists who collaborated either in the diggings at Callao Cave in Cagayan province in Luzon, or as part of the research study on the new species.

Homo luzonensis pedal phalanx

In the multi-disciplinary international cast are Florent Detroit, Julien Corny, Guillaume Daver, Clement Zanolli, Rainer Grun, and Philip J. Piper.

The Filipino archaeologists and researchers made their countrymen proud with their landmark feat, the discovery of a new species of human — distinct in many ways from earlier discoveries yet similar in some aspects — a light that glowed from the dark chambers of the cave in a country buffeted by a gauntlet of challenges.

None is like the discovery dug up from the depths of Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, on the biggest of the Philippine archipelago’s three major islands, including Visayas and Mindanao.

It was because the fossils were not similar to earlier discoveries of human species that scientists after extensive tests of the fossils named the new species H. luzonensis, honoring the island where it was dug up.

For the unaware, the genus”Homo” is Latin for “human” or “man”; luzonensis is for Luzon where the newly found hominin lived before extinction caught up with them.

The excavation team found the fossils of at least three different individuals, one of them they determined as a juvenile, during their excavations of a chamber — divided into four squares — of Callao Cave.

Their “loot” consisted of seven teeth and six small bones, dug up in 2007, 2011, and 2015 during a series of fossil-hunting archaeology-related activities, a la Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling make-believe movie character that charismatic Harrison Ford gave life to and popularized starting with the Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

“Oh, yeah! This has been a rush,” the opening statement Mijares blurted at the formal announcement of the find at UP College of Science on April 10 before members of the media, university officials and guests. “Our new member of our genes, Homo luzonensis!”

He immediately shared the credit with his fellow scientists and researchers and, certainly, with his co-authors of the study of the hominin from Europe and Australia, the project being a collaboration. It’s an international collaboration but primarily with UP.

“In 2007, I went back (to Callao Cave) funded by UP, and a grant from Australia. We excavated four (squares),” he recalls, adding it was then the team found its first fossil, the third metatarsal (foot bone).

His team started the Callao Cave search in 2000.

Homo luzonensis teeth

In a later text message to SDN — Science and Digital News, Mijares relived the moment the first fossil was found.

“With the first fossil, we were ecstatic as we have broken the time barrier of human habitation in Luzon. It is an evolutionary dead-end since those archaic features are not seen with current people,he says.

Mijares said at the formal reveal of the find they published their discovery with the Journal of Human Evolution, but “we cannot explicitly say that it was a new species yet. We only have one bone; although it looked like a Homo sapiens it also has peculiarities.”

He added, “at that time we only named it as a small-bodied Homo sapiens.”

“Archie Tiauzon dug most of the bones. He is one lucky person,” he says, giving credit to one of his partners and pointing to him among the audience.

“So, what we have then was two foot bones and two hand bones and, surprisingly, we have a series of hits,” he narrates, referring to the molars they dug up.

“So, why did we call (the fossils) Homo luzonensis, or why did we call it a new species?” he asks in retrospect.

Mijares, who could be the “Indiana Jones” of Philippine archaeology, said they now have an assemblage per se, not just a few bones. It has modern H. sapiens features with a different type of characteristics, he added.

“For example, Homo luzonensis’ molars have multiple roots. Homo sapiens probably have two at the most, but mostly one,” says the archaeologist, a student of Dizon.

“The third molar has three, the fourth pre-molar has two, and these are key features only seen among Australophithecine and Paranthropus,” he emphasizes.

Homo luzonensis teeth 2

Comparing the teeth of H. luzonensis to the species H. sapiens, to other hominids, “it is the smallest teeth among them,” as he points to an image on the screen/blackboard.

He said the species H. luzonensis has one distinct feature from the rest; its pre-molars compared to the molars, the pre-molars are really big in relation to the molars, with the molars small in relation with the pre-molar.

“Most Homo sapiens would have small pre-molars, very large molar, and small second molar and third molar,” says Mijares.

“So, the correlation is small and big. But Homo luzonensis has a very distinct feature. The size of the pre-molar is almost the size of the molar, similar to what you see with Paranthropus. But Paranthropus has very, very big teeth as compared to Homo luzonensis.

“But the correlation is similar.”

He said the Uranium series provided the minimum age or date for the fossil, while the physical analysis and laboratory analysis provided the determination about what species of human are the bone fragments.

“We are very happy to be given the opportunity to discover a new Homo species,” an elated Mijares remarks.

From that assemblage of finds, the scientists named the new human species H. luzonensis.

“These are the earliest known human remains in the Philippines, preceding the first Homo sapiens dated to (40,000 to 30,000) years ago discovered on Palawan Island, southwest of the archipelago,” a UP statement points out, referring to fossils dug up at Tabon Cave.

Homo luzonesis Mijares phalanx

One of the fossil finds being shown to members of the media. (SDN)

Initially, Mijares’ group gave the fossils the nickname “Ubag” after a mythical cave man.

They dug them up “from a sedimentary level located nearly 3 meters below the current surface of the cave floor, and two of these have been dated directly to (67,000 to 50,000) years by the Uranium series analysis.” 

Scientists made comparative analyses on the fossils through “3D imaging methods and geometric morphometrics” which revealed the Homo luzonensis species carries “very primitive elements or characters, resembling Australophithecus (afarensis), and others very modern, close to our own species Homo sapiens.”

Dizon, professorial lecturer 7 in UP ASP, explained further in an interview with SDN — Science and Digital News, why the assemblage of fossils deserve a new name in the evolutionary journey of the human species.

“As Homo luzonensis, why, why was it given a new name? It’s not a sapiens, it’s not an erectus. It’s a Homo, that’s what hominids are called,” Dizon, mentor of Mijares, says. “So, with the new findings, with the new comparative materials, among all the other fossils, it is a new species.”

“So, science is like that,” he emphasizes. “All of us do not look-alike, but we are all Homo sapiens; it’s like that. There are Homo erectus. It is a possibility, it is a possibility that it is an erectus without the fossil.”

The joyful excitement and pride belong to everyone, as Dr. Elena E. Pernia, UP vice president for Public Affairs, said in a separate interview.

Homo luzonensis trio

Archaeologist Dr. Armand ‘Mandy’ Salvador B. Mijares is flanked Scientist Dr. Eusebio Dizon (left) of the Archaeology Division, National Museum of the Philippines, and Emil Robles, UP Diliman research assistant during the open forum. (SDN)

It’s important in various ways, she said.

“The discovery is important because it is a contribution to humanity, to the discipline of archaeology. And, of course, for humanity because now we are understanding more…(about the) people, humans who lived in that prior time.

“It’s also significant for the University of the Philippines because it puts us up there in the archaeological discoveries of the world.

“For UP, and a more specific significance, it’s the first time that a Philippine scientific research is put as the cover and feature story of Nature…the international weekly journal of science. That’s very significant. There has never been a feature of Philippine discovery in that magazine, ever,” Pernia says.

Dizon, who pioneered the study of archaeology in the Philippines, voiced similar sentiments.

“This is very significant to the Philippines because it is only one fossil so far that we have and it has its own evolutionary trait for the Philippines,” he notes, with obvious elation and pride.

The National Museum official made clear the discovery of the assemblage of fossils is the first time for Filipino archaeologists. One fossil, he added, actually represents a population as fossils propagate, they reproduce so it’s a population.

“It is not just an individual, so that is the very significance of this particular specimen. That’s very rare. You cannot find another one yet. Maybe later, but now so far this is it.

“I am very happy as a professor of them to see this is happening, I am very supportive,” he assures. He said the excavation will continue in Callao Cave.

“It’s a game-changer,” utters Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum.

Can the new species be in other countries?

“No, because this is Homo luzonensis. It has a right of its own, it’s exclusive,” Dizon asserts.

He recalled the circumstances leading to the discovery.

Sometime in the year 2000 he and his colleague, Peter Bellwood, an Englishman at the Australian National University (ANU) who happens to be his former student, “we were looking for this possibility for a new project of Mandy.”

Dizon said “it is Mandy’s interest” that triggered the excavation at Callao Cave. “We went there to the excavator of Flores (an island in Indonesia). He said ‘dig deep,’ so Mandy dug deeper.”

In hindsight, the advice to dig deep was what led to the discovery of the fossils by the team of Mijares because as he said, archaeologist stop digging at the depth of two meters because “nothing is there.”

The reference to Flores that Dizon made relates to Homo floresiensis, also dubbed the “Hobbit” after R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy because the extinct Indonesian hominin was determined by scientists to stand at three feet tall.

Prof. Michael “Mike” John Morwood, led the Flores excavation team that included Indonesians, too. Dizon was referring to Morwood, a New Zealand archaeologist, who died on July 23, 2013, as the one who gave the advice to dig deep.

He said Mijares’ team consisted of 15 to 20 (including five to eight archaeologists) researchers who were taking turns for the dig.

There were 5 to 8 archaeologists in the excavating team, he said.

How much would the Homo luzonensis fossils be worth?

Dizon ventured an idea.

“Before, we say it’s ‘priceless’. What is priceless? You can go from Php1 to Php100 million. So now, I think we should put a value like Php10 million because other fossils around the world have values.”

He said the cost of the research for the fossils is like Php1 million per fossil. The dig unearthed several foot bones, hand bones, a femur, and some teeth.

“That’s very rare. You cannot find another one yet. Maybe later. But for now, so far, this is it,” he says.

Could they be, somehow, blood relatives of Filipinos?

“Possibly, in an ancestral sense. The others, when you go into the lineage of human evolution in the Family Tree. But as Mandy mentioned there are still many missing links here, many uncertainties. How we got here is a big problem,” Dizon explains.

Citing the research, he said the H. luzonensis individuals sported a small body. They did not need big chunks of meat.

But they did not exactly lived on trees. In tropical forests there are many frogs, birds, snakes that are available that can maintain their body weight, he said.

Dizon said their being “small” could be attributed to “island adaptation.” Luzon is a big island, but when they became marginalized or secluded, they grew smaller like elephants, he said.

“There are many small elephants in the Philippines, pygmy elephants, pygmy Stegodon. So, they become smaller,” he says.

“But this particular case, we don’t want to use ‘dwarfism’ because in the first place it was not small enough.”

When asked how tall could the H. luzonensis had been, Mijares did not give any particular height for lack of basis. He likened them though to typical Negrito natives, the Aetas in the Philippines, who live in many parts of the country — on Luzon, Palawan, some parts of the Visayas and Mindanao.

Philippine Aetas are less than five feet tall.

“It’s a dead-end for this species. We don’t know if they evolved into another species like Homo sapiens. We don’t know.

“So, that is why it is still a dead end in that manner. So, that is our problem now,” he says, supporting the statement of Mijares.

On the other hand, Mijares said the findings about the fossils being new species “are unassailable” so far, responding to a question from the media.

Dizon said the discovery of the new species of human or hominin in the Philippines “is important because it has a worldwide impact. This is a worldwide impact.”

Dizon recalled the days when the study of archaeology started in the Philippines in UP in 1995 and had his first students a year later.

“When we started (archaeology), we were only two educated. I was the only one with Ph.D., among how many millions of Filipinos.

“Can you imagine that? And now how many archaeologists with Ph.D., maybe less than 20 with around 110 million population in the Philippines,” he laments.

Homo luzonensis groupie

Photo-op for posterity of officials of UP Diliman and National Museum. (SDN)

Implications of the discovery

Mijares cited four implications of his team’s finding a new species of human:

  • The discovery adds a new member to the genus Homo and make Southeast Asia an important evolutionary region.
  • It also raises more questions to answer such as Homo luzonensis lineage, how and when it reached Luzon island.
  • The discovery situates the Philippines as a major area for human evolutionary research.
  • This will be a controversial discovery as the pros and cons of the identification of the new Homo species will have a lively debate.

Over at the Department of Science and  Technology (DOST), its leadership welcomed the successful archaeological project.

“Any discovery, new knowledge, if authenticated with technical findings (age, origin, species identification) helps in understanding evolution and changes,” said DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Pena. “To us, it is something we can be proud of.”

Dizon recalled how Callao Cave was excavated in the 1980s but did not yield the kind that the team of Mijares did. The excavators dug up porcelain of the Metal Age, or Neolithic and stopped.

He also provided other implications of the unearthing of H. luzonensis.

Dizon said what Filipinos “inherited during the time of H. Otley Beyer (was) most of the people in the Philippine were all migrants and the first people were Negritos.”

Not anymore.

“Now, with the research with Peter Bellwood and myself we believe that the present-day Filipino population (Austronesian speakers) came only around 4,000 years ago.

“So, with these fossils they have all long gone. They became extinct just like the elephants, the Stegodon. So, there are other populations that came in and, before, we believed that we came from Indonesia, we came from Malaysia because we speak Malay. No. Malay is a language.

“Now, it’s the other way around,” said Dizon.

He said he thinks that the Austronesian people who inhabited the Philippines were the ones who migrated to Indonesia and Malaysia; a complete change.

“And, so, with this new findings it is a complete change of human origin in the Philippines,” the pioneer Filipino archaeologist declares. (SDN)

Featured image: Archaeologist Dr. Armand ‘Mandy’ Salvador B. Mijares, sorts out the 13 fossils of H. luzonensis on April 10 of the new human species find. At his left is Dr. Elena Pernia, UP Diliman vice president for Public Affairs. (SDN) 

This story may need some updates, including captions for the photographs, all by SDN.

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