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Slaughtered rhino from Kalinga just changed world history

Butchered rhino. An archaeologist at work at the site of an archaeological dig at Kalinga province.

Photo by AFP

MANILA, Philippines – A group of archaeologists unearthed remains of a butchered, ancient rhinoceros in Rizal, Kalinga in 2014. It seems nothing out of the ordinary, as finding ancient animal remains is not really earth-shattering in the world of science.

But it turns out, the bones date back all the way to 709,000 years ago – a time where textbooks say a time that humans did not exist in any Philippine island.

The bones had cut marks, indicating that humans slaughtered the rhino using sharp stone tools.

It was long believed that humans first set foot in the Philippines 67,000 years ago, based on the uncovered human remains in the Callao Cave, in Cagayan. The team’s discovery may dispute that by over tenfold.

It was a glorious day for the team led by professor Thomas Ingicco of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, and Clyde Jago-on and Marian Reyes of the Philippine National Museum.

Rhino bones. Visitors look at fossilised bones of a Rhinoceros philippinensis dating back 709,000 years ago, excavated in northern province of Kalinga, being displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Manila on May 10, 2018.

Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Archaeologist Kathryn Manalo first saw a tooth one meter deep in the excavation area. 

"The local people who were working for us said bato lang 'yan [that is only a rock], but then I said, let's wait for it, and when we finally got the confirmation, it was an amazing moment because that was the first part of rhino that we found," Manalo said.

“We had warm beer after the excavation,” said Mylene Lising, another archaeologist who was part of the team.

Researchers got their hands even dirtier, digging inch by inch, being very careful not to damage other potential finds. The team eventually unearthed the rhinoceros fossil that was 75% intact. They also found some 50 stone tools near the fossil.

"Rhino remains, plus stone tools, plus butchery marks, equals indirect evidence [of] presence of ancient humans," said Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum.

Rhino tooth. A tooth of an ancient rhinoceros is in display at the National Museum of Natural History.

Photo by Ralf Rivas

So, who killed the rhino?

The exciting discovery just led to more questions.The team is now more motivated to search for the ancient humans or "archaic hominis" that butchered the rhino.

Lising says they have a likely suspect: the Homo erectus. 

Homo erectus were the most mobile among the hominis, reaching various lands coming from ancient Africa. They lived some two million years. Homo sapiens, our species, came to be only around 300,000 years ago. Lising said, "Clearly, we're babies compared to them."

"We’re going to have the direct evidence because we found smaller bones of lizards. So if small bones can survive, what more for the much larger human bones?” Lising explained.

We will have to wait for archaeologists to find human remains before history books are changed.

Stone tools. Lithic artifacts associated with the butchered rhinoceros dating to 709,000 years ago.

Photo by Ralf Rivas

LGUs committed to protect the area

The buzz over Kalinga being an archaeological goldmine has motivated the local government to further protect the area.

"Because of the discovery, people had more jobs, the local economy is alive," said a joyful Kalinga Mayor Marcelo dela Cruz.

With the help of the archaeologists, there are now local tour guides that can explain what transpired in the area.

"Kaya ako at mga tao ko, kaya magsabi na, '1935, [19]36, thousands of years ago, ganito ganito ganyan ang nangyari," Dela Cruz said. (That's why me and my people can say, "1935, 1936, thousands of years ago, this and that happened.")

Dela Cruz passed a local ordinance banning any agricultural activity around the excavation site. However, he hopes the national government would enact stiffer laws to further protect the area.

Tree of life. The heart of the National Museum of Natural History features an elevator resembling a tree.

Photo by Ralf Rivas

The golden age of Philippine museums

Some of the rhino's bones can be viewed by the public at the National Museum of Natural History. Doors will open on May 18, in time for international museum day.

The new museum is stylish and boasts of architectural intricacies. The heart of the museum is a dome, where a modern elevator mimics a tree.

"The previous and current administration really poured funds for the museums in the country. Before, going to museums was dull and boring. That's all in the past now," said Barns.

Meanwhile, Manalo hopes the discovery would encourage the youth to take up archaeology.

"There is no undergrad in archaeology. There is a certificate, masters, and Phd in UP Diliman. The field helps you understand you and the society around you by revisiting the past," said Manalo. – Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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