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Archaeologist at uncovering bones at the Kalinga site.

Butchered Rhino Indicates Much Earlier Human Occupation of the Philippines

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Archaeologists have made an extraordinary find that shows that early humans occupied the Philippines much earlier than thought. According to a report in scientific journal Nature, archaeologists found a complete rhinoceros skeleton with cut marks in a clay bed, along with approximately fifty stone tools at Kalinga on Luzon.  The team, partly funded by the National Geographic Society, believes that the find transforms what we know about the human occupation of the Philippines. Experts took great pains to carbon date the bones knowing how important they could be.  After a careful analysis it was discovered that they were 700,000 years old, raising the question what species of early humans occupied Luzon.

The near-complete skeleton of an extinct rhino from Kalinga in Luzon. Image: G.D. van den Bergh, Ingicco et al

The near-complete skeleton of an extinct rhino from Kalinga in Luzon. Image: G.D. van den Bergh, Ingicco et al

Early Humans occupation of the Philippines

The earliest evidence that archaeologists have for the settlement of early humans in the Philippines comes from Luzon's Callao Cave, where a 67,000-year-old homo erectus foot bone was unearthed. However, the stone tools and bones from the clay bed at Kalinga would indicate that early humans had occupied Luzon much earlier than assumed. Furthermore, it also raises the prospect that the first hominins to occupy the Philippines were not homo erectus but another hominid. The studies lead author, Thomas Ingicco remarked, “It was surprising to find such an old peopling of the Philippines” reports the National Geographic .

Many had thought that early hominins could not have settled on the islands off South East Asia because they were cut off from the continent by the open sea. Most of the scientific community agreed with the theory that human settlement of the Philippines had occurred approximately 70,000 years ago. The find at Kalinga overturned the traditional timeframe for the human occupation of Luzon and possibly for the wider South East Asian island region .

An representative image of an assortment of 9 flint tools of various dates during the prehistoric period. Image: CC BY-SA 2.0

An representative image of an assortment of 9 flint tools of various dates during the prehistoric period. Image:  CC BY-SA 2.0

Who made the tools?

There were no human remains that would have allowed the researchers to identify the hominins who had hunted and killed the rhinoceros. However, several theories have been offered as to the identity of the hunters who had arrived at the island, ‘hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought’ notes a report in Phys.org. Some have speculated that the hunters and toolmakers may have been Denisovans, a hominin who flourished in Siberia and Russia. However, this is thought to be unlikely and it is highly speculative. It seems likely that the hunters were homo erectus hominins. There is evidence for their occupation of Luzon 70,000 years ago and their remains have been found in Indonesia, that were dated from 700,000 years ago.

Comparison of skull structures of early human species. (CC BY 4.0)

Comparison of skull structures of early human species. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Some have speculated that the early humans who butchered the rhinoceros were related to the H. floresiensis. This is the famous ‘hobbit’ that was found in Flores and was a homo erectus that shrank in size to adapt to conditions on the island. However, there is no evidence of this and indeed the fact that these hominins killed a large and powerful rhinoceros would indicate that they may not have been related to the tiny homo floresiensis .

The theory that the hunters who killed the rhinoceros and who were clearly toolmakers were homo erectus is the most plausible. However, this in turn leads to another mystery and that is how did these hominins arrive on Luzon, which is an island, some distance from land. It seems likely that they arrived from either Taiwan to the north or Borneo from the south but how did they manage to cross the open and stormy sea? No one believes that homo erectus had the know-how and technology to sail to the island (although there is growing evidence of early human seafaring ).

Some have speculated that the ancestors of the hunters were swept to the island by a storm or Tsunami to Luzon. This is a real mystery, but it is one that is not without precedent. The fact that there is no clear way for early humans to migrate to the islands does not mean that this group of hominins did not occupy the Philippines. Early humans were not alone in making it to the island, large animals such as the rhinoceros were able to migrate to Luzon, but no-one knows how.

The find at Kalinga would indicate that the Philippines have a much longer history of human occupation than originally thought. The find shows that the human story in the South Pacific is much complex and that there are possibly more exciting finds to be made on Luzon and in the wider South East Asian island region.

Top image: Archaeologist at uncovering bones at the Kalinga site. Source: Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle .

By Ed Whelan

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