New human species discovered in the Philippine island of Luzon

Seven teeth, believed to belong to a new hominin species, Homo luzonensis, were found in Luzon’s Callao Cave.
(Photo courtesy of Callao Cave Archaeology Project)

Homo luzonensis revealed to have lived more than 50,000 years ago

A new branch of the human family tree has been appropriately named ‘Homo luzonensis,’ after several teeth and bones — believed to be that of two adults and one child — were found on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.

In a report published Wednesday, April 10 in the journal Nature, scientists revealed that the human species previously unknown to scientists likely lived in Luzon more than 50,000 years ago.

Based off the cache of seven hominin teeth, a thigh bone, two foot bones, and hand bones unearthed from Luzon’s limestone Callao Cave, researchers said the H. luzonensis may have stood at around four feet tall.

Clues to the species first came about in 2007 when Armand Mijares, a Filipino archaeologist at the University of the Philippines found a toe bone in Callao Cave. The cave features seven large chambers — one of which was turned into a chapel by locals.

It was unclear at the time which species the bone came from, but researchers concluded it to have dated 67,000 years ago with measurements the size of a small Homo sapien.

In 2010, Mijares and his colleague Philip Piper, a zooarchaeologist at Australia National University, published a description of the finding. A year later, more of the bones were discovered.

The excavations at Callao Cave were conducted with researchers from the Griffith University in Australia, and a number of universities in France namely the University of Bordeaux, Paul Sabatier University, and the University of Poitiers. Leading the project was Dr. Mijares, and Dr. Florent Détroit of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Mijares told CNN Philippines that he had a feeling that the 2007 discovery would be significant, and that the following years of work leading up the new species was well worth the wait.

“The opportunity to name a new species is difficult and rare. That per se, for me, is a major contribution to knowledge,” Mijares told CNN Philippines. “And for this to happen in the Philippines, although I collaborate with foreigners, I am a very nationalistic person.”

Discoveries in Southeast Asia and the Philippines

The discovery of H. luzonensis is the second new human species to be identified in southeast Asia in recent years, according to Nature. 

In 2004, another team of Australian and Indonesian researchers discovered bones of the Homo floresiensis species in the Flores island cave east of Bali, Indonesia.

Similarly short in height, the species have often been described as “hobbits.” The National Geographic reported them having lived with pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons on a remote Indonesian island some 18,000 years ago.

Aside from bones, tool-like artifacts have been found in the South Pacific, further bringing curiosity to the region as to how early humans could have arrived in the first place.

In 2016, stone tools dating back about 66,000 years before the arrival of the first anatomically modern human were found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Last year, dozens of abandoned artifacts next to a butchered rhinoceros carcass and other animal skeletal remains were reported to have been found in Luzon’s Cagayan Valley province of Kalinga. Researches dated the clay-rich bone bed in which the tool-like artifacts were found to go back sometime between 631,000 and 777,000 years. 

But in regards to H. luzonensis, Détroit said that the bones found in Callao Cave have recognizable differences from H. floresiensis and other hominins like Homo erectus — the species believed to be an ancestor of the modern humans that left Africa some two millions years ago.

While researchers are cautious in estimating H. floresiensis’ height, Détroit told Nature that the teeth and foot bones suggest they had a height similar to that of some Indigenous ethnic groups currently living in Luzon and throughout the Philippines.

As for Mijares, he’s hoping archaeological discoveries will be made in other parts of the Philippines including Palawan and Panay island. A two-year excavation project in Bulacan is also in the works to find out when H. sapiens first arrived in Luzon.

“There are a lot of potentials also there,” Mijares told CNN Philippines. “But what I want right now is not for me to personally leave those digs but to let my students now take over those sites. Because I’m training my students, and later on, give them the opportunity to lead those excavations.” 

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