New Species of Ancient Human Unearthed in the Philippines

New Species of Ancient Human Unearthed in the Philippines
illustration ©

A strange new species may have joined the human family. Human fossils found in a cave on Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, include tiny molars suggesting their owners were small; curved finger and toe bones hint that they climbed trees. Homo luzonensis, as the species has been christened, lived some 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, when the world hosted multiple archaic humans, including Neanderthals and Denisovans, and when H. sapiens may have been making its first forays into Southeast Asia.

“This is a truly sensational finding,” says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. The paper, published this week in Nature, “sent shivers down my spine.”

The discovery echoes that of another unusual ancient hominin—the diminutive H. floresiensis, or “hobbit,” found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. “One is interesting. Two is a pattern,” says Jeremy DeSilva, an expert on Homo foot bones at Dartmouth College. He and others suspect the islands of Southeast Asia may have been a cradle of diversity for ancient humans, and that H. luzonensis, like H. floresiensis, may have evolved small body size in isolation on an island.

About 67,000 years ago, Callao Cave on Luzon in the Philippines was home to an unusual human. © CALLAO CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT
About 67,000 years ago, Callao Cave on Luzon in the Philippines was home to an unusual human. © CALLAO CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT


In 2007, a team led by Armand Mijares, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, found a metatarsal—one of the bones that runs along the top of the foot—in Callao Cave on Luzon. The shape of the bone clearly marked its owner as a member of our genus, the team reported in 2010. The ratio of uranium to its decay products in the bone revealed its probable age range, between 50,000 and 80,000 years old, with a likely minimum age of about 67,000 years. Intrigued, Mijares’s team went back in 2011 and 2015—and excavated what he calls a fossil “bonanza.”

In the same layer as the metatarsal, the team discovered five teeth from the right upper jaw of the same individual, two isolated teeth, two finger bones, two toe bones, and a broken femur. The bones represent at least three individuals, the team says, all presumably from the same species.

The teeth show a unique mosaic of traits found separately in other Homo species. The premolars are about the size of ours, but instead of a single root they have two or three—a primitive feature. The molars are much more modern, with single roots, but “incredibly small” at only 10 millimeters long and 8 millimeters across, says Florent Détroit, a paleoanthropologist at the Museum of Man in Paris who worked with Mijares. That’s even smaller than those of H. floresiensis. Tooth size tends to correlate with body size, so it’s possible that H. luzonensis itself was tiny, Détroit says. But only a complete arm or leg bone will say for sure.

The long, curved fingers and toes resemble those of australopithecines like Lucy, an early human ancestor thought to have both walked upright and swung through the trees. “This is a very strong indication of climbing,” says paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell, who studies hand bones at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K.

Teeth show a new find is Homo. © CALLAO CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT
Teeth show a new find is Homo. © CALLAO CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT


Not everyone is ready to embrace these teeth and skeletal fragments as a separate species, rather than a locally adapted population of, say, H. erectus, an older hominin that lived in Asia for millennia.

“I see what they’re saying, but at the same time, I want more,” says Susan Antón, a paleoanthropologist at New York University in New York City. A skull bone could clinch the case for a new species, as could ancient DNA. But DNA breaks down fast in hot, humid conditions like those at the cave, and the fossils have not yielded genetic material.

Regardless of whether H. luzonensis was its own species, it may have evolved in isolation for hundreds of thousands of years. Butchered rhino bones on Luzon date to 700,000 years ago, though researchers don’t yet know which human species was responsible.

Mijares is already back in the field. Many more pieces of the human story could be hidden on Southeast Asia’s islands. When it comes to human evolution, Antón says, “We know a lot less than we thought we did.”

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Akhyari Hananto

I began my career in the banking industry in 1997, and stayed approx 6 years in it. This industry boost his knowledge about the economic condition in Indonesia, both macro and micro, and how to More understand it. My banking career continued in Yogyakarta when I joined in a program funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),as the coordinator for a program aimed to help improve the quality of learning and teaching process in private universities in Yogyakarta. When the earthquake stroke Yogyakarta, I chose to join an international NGO working in the area of ?disaster response and management, which allows me to help rebuild the city, as well as other disaster-stricken area in Indonesia. I went on to become the coordinator for emergency response in the Asia Pacific region. Then I was assigned for 1 year in Cambodia, as a country coordinator mostly to deliver developmental programs (water and sanitation, education, livelihood). In 2009, he continued his career as a protocol and HR officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya, and two years later I joined the Political and Economic Section until now, where i have to deal with extensive range of people and government officials, as well as private and government institution troughout eastern Indonesia. I am the founder and Editor-in-Chief in Good News From Indonesia (GNFI), a growing and influential social media movement, and was selected as one of The Most Influential Netizen 2011 by The Marketeers magazine. I also wrote a book on "Fundamentals of Disaster Management in 2007"?, "Good News From Indonesia : Beragam Prestasi Anak Bangsa di dunia"? which was luanched in August 2013, and "Indonesia Bersyukur"? which is launched in Sept 2013. In 2014, 3 books were released in which i was one of the writer; "Indonesia Pelangi Dunia"?, "Indonesia The Untold Stories"? and "Growing! Meretas Jalan Kejayaan" I give lectures to students in lectures nationwide, sharing on full range of issues, from economy, to diplomacy Less
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