It's part of their their mission to help the Philippines catch up with the rest of Southeast Asia in terms of archaeological research. In 2014, this team unearthed the remains of a rhinoceros that was later dated to be an incredible 709,000 years old. That in itself may have been exciting, but it wasn’t just any prehistoric rhino bones. The bones were also found alongside stone tools, and the bones themselves bore the marks of butchery—suggesting that ancient hominins had slaughtered the animal.
Prior to that discovery, scientists had only believed that humans were in the Philippines about 67,000 years, based on the human remains discovered in Callao Cave, Cagayan in 2010. This discovery by Ingicco and his team may pre-date human presence in the Philippine archipelago ten times as previously believed.
Dr. Ingicco was at the National Museum of Natural History last Friday, where he spoke to us about his team’s discovery, what we know about our heritage, and what they’re still trying to figure out.
ESQUIRE: How were you pulled into this project?
Thomas Ingicco: I used to teach at University of the Philippines, and this project has been going on for three years. When this project started, our project [director, Mr. Angel Bautista of the National Museum of Natural History] contacted me and asked, ‘Where do you want to excavate?’ And I said Cagayan.
ESQ: What tipped you off to search in Cagayan?
TI: We knew that there were fossils on the surface with stone tools. We didn’t know what age they were, but we knew that was the place to search for.
ESQ: How did you know that was the place?
TI: Because of the surface fossils, we knew it was rich. We knew they were made by humans. The whole idea was to search if the stone artifacts were the same age as the fauna, which means they were as old as we though. Right now, because we were right, it makes that site the oldest excavation site in the Philippines.
Prior [to this,] the earliest excavation was 67,000 years, and what we found was dated 700,000 years in the past, which is a huge jump...Between 67,000 and 700,000 years, what happened?
ESQ: So what can we take away from this study that we didn’t know before?
TI: There are three reasons the site is important. First, it’s by far the oldest site in the Philippines for human occupation. We know that because of the work we did, and the dating that we conducted on the objects. Prior [to this,] the earliest excavation was 67,000 years, and what we found was dated 700,000 years in the past, which is a huge jump. It means that humans were there quite early and that we have a big gap of archeology to fill in. Between 67,000 and 700,000 years, what happened?
Secondly, this means that humans arrived in the Philippines, even if the Philippines is made of islands which are isolated from each other. Not all islands in Southeast Asia are isolated, like Indonesia, Borneo… they were connected in the past, so early humans could reach them by foot. In the Philippines, they could not. And yet, we still believe that Homo sapiens were capable of taking to the sea.
ESQ: What is the big question now that we’re trying to answer?
TI: How they got there. It’s quite difficult to answer because even if they made a watercraft, it was likely perishable material which would not preserve through time. So it’s our big question, but it’s not easy to answer. What’s easier to answer is where they came from because we have an entire skeleton of a rhinoceros, so we can compare it to other species in Southeast Asia.
ESQ: And this is the next part of your research?
TI: From the data we’ve collected so far, yes, and we’re trying to find more remains from the sites. We continue to dig, and maybe one day we’ll find human remains.
ESQ: As an archeologist, when you find a big discovery like this, or a big jump in the knowledge that we already have, do you believe that this is something that you can answer in the next few years? Or is it more like you wouldn’t be surprised even if it took lifetimes?
TI: It depends. There are plenty of questions that we know whether we will answer or not. Like the watercraft, I told you, we will probably never know. It is very unlikely. If one day it comes, I will be very surprised. But with the development of new techniques, maybe we will. For the longest time, archaeology was limited by the dating methods. We didn’t have good dating methods, but now physicists have developed new methods to help us date several materials from different periods.
ESQ: Most people when they hear “excavation” and “archaeology” they have a very adventurous image where you’re out on the field all the time—would you say that’s accurate?
TI: It’s a very romantic view. Archaeologists, as any other researchers, spend a lot of time searching for money. And that is something important. Then we spend some time on the field, I can spend maybe three months a year excavating. And the rest of the time is spent in the lab writing. It’s like one-fourth in the field, and the rest is research. Including research of money. You need the publications to publish it too, and they only spend time on you if you are interesting.
ESQ: So do you think you were lucky in that sense, or is this just part the job, trying to make it interesting to other people?
TI: Well, it’s not the way I thought. I had an interest. I thought there was something older than Callao Cave in Luzon. I was convinced we could find something else. That was my theory. Not everyone shared it, far from it. Cagayan Valley has been known for surface findings for a long time—many of the archeologists thought there would be nothing older than Homo sapiens. I was searching for [knowledge of] paleobiodiversity, which we are still lacking in the Philippines.
TI: The biodiversity of extinct species. We know a lot about the present species, and everything in the older sites in the Philippines, are mostly species we still have nowadays. I was looking for species that were extinct.
Secondly, this means that humans arrived in the Philippines, even if the Philippines is made of islands which are isolated from each other...We still believe that Homo sapiens were capable of taking to the sea.