Humankind has entangled another strand of our ancestry when researchers in the Philippines announced on April 10, 2019 that they have discovered a sp
Humankind has entangled another strand of our ancestry when researchers in the Philippines announced on April 10, 2019 that they have discovered a species of ancient human previously unknown to science.
The new human species Homo luzonensis, was named after the island of Luzon in the Philippines where it was found. The bones are tiny, suggesting that Homo luzonensis was under 4 feet tall. That would make it the second species of diminutive human to be found in south-east Asia.
Decades ago, the story of Asiad has deemed to be hazy and incomplete. Paleoanthropologists knew that archaic hominins such as Homo erectus ventured over land bridges into parts of what is now Indonesia nearly a million years ago. But farther east, it was thought that these hominins ran into ocean currents considered impassable without boats.
Luzon seemed especially difficult for ancient hominins to reach, as it had never been connected to the mainland by land bridges, so archaeologists thought that digging into deeper, older layers of soil wouldn’t yield much. When Mijares first excavated Callao Cave in 2003, he found 25,000-year-old evidence of human activity—but he didn’t dig any deeper than about four feet down.
“Most Southeast Asian archaeologists would only excavate cave sites up to two meters, and they would stop,” Mijares says.
That all changed in 2004, when researchers unveiled Homo floresiensis—a diminutive hominin, also known as the “hobbit,” that inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores until 50,000 years ago. Inspired, Mijares returned to Callao Cave in 2007 to literally dig deeper.
In 2010, Mijares and his colleagues unveiled the 67,000-year-old fossil, which they tentatively suggested belonged to a small-bodied member of Homo sapiens, making it perhaps the oldest sign of our species anywhere in the Philippines at the time. But Mijares suspected that it might actually belong to a new species, maybe even a Luzon analog to H. floresiensis.
While evolution sculpted H. luzonensis into a small form similar to that of H. floresiensis, we don’t know which island conditions drove the differences between the two species. Also, while a barrage of studies makes clear that interspecies unions happened regularly, we don’t know whether H. luzonensis ancestors interacted or bred with other hominin species that lived in Asia at the time.