The recent discovery of a rhinoceros skeleton in the northern Philippine province of Kalinga suggests that early humans “colonized” the Philippines about 600,000 years earlier than what previous archaeological finds had suggested.
In a study published earlier this week in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Thomas Ingicco of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris initially described a find that was made more than six decades ago, where archaeologists found stone tools and megafauna remains in multiple Southeast Asian islands, including the Philippine island of Luzon. At that time, the theory that early humans were also present in those areas was dismissed as “hypothetical,” due to the lack of corroborating on-site fossils and artifacts.
The new research, however, looked at a more recent series of discoveries at Kalinga, a province located in northern Luzon’s Cagayan Valley, where close to 60 stone tools were linked to a near-intact skeleton of Rhinoceros philippinensis, a now-extinct species. The researchers found signs of “clear butchery” in the rhino skeleton and other animal skeletons found in the area, but what stood out as interesting was how electro-spin resonance dating techniques revealed the finds to be about 777,000- to 631,000-years-old, with the rhino tooth possibly being about 709,000-years-old.
This suggests that early humans were in the Philippines hundreds of thousands of years earlier than once believed. As noted by a report from Philippine publication InterAksyon, the oldest known human fossils found in the Philippines prior to the new discovery were found in Callao Cave in Cagayan in 2010 and were estimated to be about 67,000-years-old.
According to Popular Mechanics, the researchers concluded that the rhino was butchered by humans because the tools found at the Kalinga site were the type of tools that early humans were known to use. Furthermore, the marks found on the rhino were too large to have been made by smaller, carnivorous animals and looked like the kind of cuts that would have been made by human tools. There were also marks on the rhino’s skeleton that suggested it was struck by a human attacker and no proof that its muddy habitat would have contributed to such severe bruising.
“The natural marks present at the surface of the bones were observed and described and are clearly different from the ones we interpreted as cutting marks,” Ingicco said in a statement.
While it still isn’t clear what early human species had lived in the Philippines at that time and butchered the rhino carcass, Popular Mechanics suggests that it might have been Homo erectus, a species that thrived in Asia and went extinct about 140,000 years ago.
The bigger mystery, however, might be how early humans were able to arrive on Philippine soil at a time when the islands were only accessible by boat. The researchers believe that it’s possible they dispersed “over at least one sea barrier” to arrive in Luzon, with the most likely routes being Borneo through the western island of Palawan, or from China through Taiwan, which was still connected to mainland Asia at that time in Earth’s history.