The discovery of stone tools near the skeleton of a long-extinct rhinoceros has pushed back evidence for hominin settlement in the Philippines by hundreds of thousands of years – long before the presence of Homo sapiens.
In a paper in the journal Nature, archaeologists led by Thomas Ingicco of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, detail the results of recent excavations at a site called Kalinga in the Cagayan Valley of northern Luzon.
The team unearthed 57 stone tools, including flakes and possible hammer stones, in the vicinity of fossil bones and teeth from several different species, including the elephant-like stegodon, brown deer, turtles and monitor lizards. Most prominent, however, was an almost complete but dismembered skeleton of an extinct rhino, Rhinoceros philippinensis, showing clear signs of butchery.
Using a dating method known as electron-spin resonance, applied to tooth enamel and quartz, the finds were all dated to between 777,000 and 631,000 years ago.
Although the presence of ancient human ancestors in the Philippines has been hypothesised for decades, until now the oldest firm evidence of hominin occupation was a single metatarsal bone recorded in 2010 and dated to just 66,000 years ago. The bone, also found in northern Luzon, was identified as belonging to a “small bodied” Homo sapiens.
In the light of the new findings, Ingicco and colleagues suggest that this classification be revisited. The bone may indeed be from a comparatively recent migratory wave of Homo sapiens, they say, but may also be a direct descendent of the Kalinga tool makers.
As to which hominin species made the stone tools and butchered the rhino, the researchers say there is in insufficient evidence to make a determination, but nominate Homo erectus or Denisovans as possibilities.
They also raise the possibility that the ancestors of the Kalinga community may have arrived from across the sea, implying that they possessed the skills and knowledge to make simple water craft. Such a hypothesis, they concede, “still seems too farfetched to suggest”, however, in light of increasing evidence of overseas dispersal, it “cannot currently be rejected”.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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