[Time Trowel] From the apes to adobo

Stephen Acabado

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[Time Trowel] From the apes to adobo

David Castuciano/Rappler

'The evolutionary journey from the African savannas to the shores of the Philippines is a story of remarkable adaptability and resilience, a powerful reminder of our shared heritage'

A trowel (/ˈtraʊ.əl/), in the hands of an archaeologist, is like a trusty sidekick – a tiny, yet mighty, instrument that uncovers ancient secrets, one well-placed scoop at a time. It’s the Sherlock Holmes of the excavation site, revealing clues about the past with every delicate swipe.

Ever paused mid-scroll on your smartphone and pondered, “Why am I not walking on all fours like my pet cat?” This question might seem whimsical at first, but it invites us to embark on a journey back in time. Imagine, a long, long time ago, our ancestors lounging in the vast African savanna, not worrying about wi-fi, but survival. In this deep historical narrative, we find the roots of our evolution.

Transitioning from this thought to our early ancestors, we realize that this story, our story, is not just about biological changes. It’s about the development of complex social structures, language, and the ability to shape the world around us. From the early hominins in Africa to the diverse populations of Homo sapiens spread across the globe, every step of our evolutionary path has been marked by incredible adaptability and innovation.

In this evolutionary journey, even the emotion that we call love plays a crucial role. Those who formed strong emotional bonds were more likely to stick together, protect each other, and raise their young successfully. Love, in its most basic form, was like nature’s insurance policy, ensuring cooperation and mutual support in the challenging environments of ancient earth.

Now, imagine the beginnings of this journey. It all started rather unassumingly, perhaps with a curious individual, let’s call her Ardi (after Ardipithecus ramidus), a species of hominin who lived about 4.4 million years ago, deciding to stand up and look over the tall grass. This simple act, driven by necessity or curiosity, set the stage for a series of changes that would eventually lead to us, Homo sapiens sapiens.

Ardi’s choice to stand on two legs was a pivotal moment in our evolutionary tale. Picture them: walking upright, curious eyes scanning the horizon, hands that could shape the future. They were the pioneers on the evolutionary road trip to humanity. This marks a transition to a new era in our evolutionary history.

Enter Homo habilis, an early human species. They were the handy folks of their time, chipping stone tools, a significant leap in the “tools” department since the time of Ardipithecus. These tools symbolized a major cognitive leap, akin to the Stone Age equivalent of upgrading from a flip phone to a smartphone. The deliberate production of these tools shows massive cognitive development.

The story of human evolution is not just confined to one region. As if bitten by the travel bug, Homo erectus decided to pack their stone tools and embark on the ultimate road trip out of Africa. They reached places as far-flung as Southeast Asia, navigating without the luxury of Google maps or travel blogs.

Meanwhile, in what would eventually be known as the Philippine archipelago, a different kind of human story was unfolding, specifically in Rizal, Kalinga. Here, in 2018, archaeologists found a 700,000-year-old butchered rhinoceros. The tools found alongside it hinted at human activity, predating the presence of Homo sapiens. So, who was this mysterious butcher? Enter the possibility of Homo erectus or even a Denisovan connection, underscoring the complexity and diversity of our evolutionary journey in Southeast Asia.

The discovery in Kalinga adds a crucial piece to the puzzle of human evolution in this region. It suggests that the Philippines was part of the broader story of human migration and adaptation, far earlier than previously thought. This finding enriches our understanding of the diverse adaptations of our species and its relatives.

But wait, there’s more to this evolving narrative. In 2019, scientists discovered bones belonging to a pint-sized hominin, dubbed Homo luzonensis in Callao Cave, Peñablanca, Cagayan. This diminutive person, who might have been able to give our friend Ardi a run for her money in a limbo contest, has thrown a delightful curveball into our understanding of human evolution. Homo luzonensis is the mysterious new kid on the evolutionary block, even if some scholars suggest identification and taphonomic issues cloud the picture.

Now, let’s connect these dots from Africa to the Philippines and see how this epic journey is more than just a history lesson; it’s a narrative that cultivates tolerance and understanding. Understanding our shared evolutionary history helps us appreciate the diversity and resilience of the human species.

This shared history can be a powerful tool for tolerance. Recognizing that we all come from the same roots, that our ancestors faced similar challenges and adapted in remarkable ways, can help us see beyond the superficial differences that often divide us.

In the Philippines, this understanding can enrich cultural foundations, embracing the diverse influences that have shaped the nation. It’s a celebration of the Filipino spirit, a testament to the resilience and adaptability inherent in our shared human history.

However, human evolution is not just a topic for academic study; it’s a reflection of who we are today. For instance, consider the way we form communities, echoing the ancient social networks that were key to our ancestors’ survival. This connection to our past explains why we yearn for connection and communication in our modern world.

Our evolutionary past also influences modern medicine. Take for example G6PD (Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase) deficiency, a genetic disorder prevalent in the Philippines, especially in areas with endemic malaria. G6PD deficiency acts like a security guard preventing unauthorized access to your blood cells. This guard is great at one thing: keeping out malaria parasites. This is awesome because it keeps you safe from malaria, a real troublemaker.

But, here’s the catch: our guard, G6PD deficiency, is a bit quirky. They’ve got a list of things they don’t like – certain foods and some medicines. When these things show up, it’s like they play loud, crazy music that makes the red blood cells start to panic and break apart. This can lead to anemia, which is like the party getting out of hand and everyone feeling unwell.

So, while G6PD deficiency is great at keeping malaria out, it also means you have to be careful about what you eat and what medicine you take. It’s nature’s way of balancing things out. You get protection from a serious disease, but there’s also a bit of a downside that you must watch out for. It’s a fascinating example of how our bodies work in complicated and sometimes unexpected ways!

And let’s talk about our diet. Even our struggles with modern diet and lifestyle find context in this narrative. The mismatch between our evolved preferences and today’s processed food abundance leads to contemporary health challenges, illustrating the ongoing impact of our evolutionary past.

Understanding evolution facilitates a sense of connection, reminding us that beneath human diversity lies a common thread. This narrative also motivates us, showing that if our ancestors could face the challenges of their time, we can certainly overcome the challenges of ours.

The story of human evolution is not a story locked in the past; it’s a living legacy that shapes our present and guides our future. The evolutionary journey from the African savannas to the shores of the Philippines is a story of remarkable adaptability and resilience, a powerful reminder of our shared heritage.

To wrap it up, this narrative of human evolution is more than a history lesson. It’s a nod to our shared past, a celebration of our diverse present, and a hopeful glance towards our common future. Remember, every aspect of our daily life, from enjoying adobo to singing karaoke, connects us to a story that began millions of years ago, with ancestors taking their first upright steps towards the future. And let’s not forget the intriguing finds like the butchered rhino in Rizal, Kalinga and the discoveries in Callao Cave, reminding us that our history is still full of surprises waiting to be discovered. –

Stephen Acabado is professor of anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles. He directs the Ifugao and Bicol Archaeological Projects, research programs that engage community stakeholders. He grew up in Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Follow him on IG @s.b.acabado. 

1 comment

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  1. ET

    This is Prof. Stephen Acabados’ most important statement in his article: “This shared history can be a powerful tool for tolerance. Recognizing that we all come from the same roots, that our ancestors faced similar challenges and adapted in remarkable ways, can help us see beyond the superficial differences that often divide us.” But humankind is focused more on these “superficial differences.” Such focus has led us to wars.

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