Meet the Filipino professor who led the discovery of a new human-linked species

Dr. Armand Mijares was the team leader of the archaeologist group which unearthed the new species, Homo luzonensis.

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 11) — The recent discovery of a new species in Cagayan has placed the Philippines back in the global archaeological map.

It's all thanks to the work of the team of Dr. Armand Mijares, a University of the Philippines Associate Professor who teaches in the school's Archaeological Studies Program (ASP).

Mijares and his team found the bones of two adults and a child, from a previously unknown human-related species now called Homo luzonensis. Through uranium-series dating, the bones were found to be 50 to 67 thousand years old -- making them the earliest human remains to be discovered in the Philippines.

He said the excavations, partly funded by the University of the Philippines, cost about P3 to 4 million.

READ: A mysterious species related to humans has been discovered in the Philippines

But Mijares did not start off as an archaeologist at all.

"Before I became an archaeologist, I did a Master's thesis in Anthropology," he told CNN Philippines. Mijares worked with the Mangyan community of Mindoro at the time. "I taught in Manila for a while, and I was suddenly fired. I was not renewed."

He then looked for work elsewhere, finding a reseacher position at the National Museum in 1994, when he was in his late twenties. Mijares worked for the Manila-based museum until 2006.

"With my anthropological background, I could easily go and do fieldwork. Most of the time I was actually surveying from Batanes to Mindanao, to Palawan," he said.

The National Museum had been excavating in Callao Cave from 1979 to 1981. Mijares would begin digging in the cave 22 years later, but in the late 1990s he was already digging somewhere near.

"After doing my diploma in archaeology here ASP, I was the first student here in 1996, I was able to get a Fullbright Scholarship to study in the U.S., so for that, before I went to the U.S., I dug my first site in Peñablanca where Callao Cave is called Minori Cave," he said.

The Filipino archaeologist continued his studies, beginning in 2002 his doctorate studies in Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at the Australian National University, where he worked under the tutelage of Peter Bellwood. Bellwood is famous for his Out-of-Taiwan (OOT) hypothesis of the migration of Austronesians -- the race believed to be ancestors of Filipinos.

"My adviser, Peter Bellwood wants me to excavate Callao Cave," he said. "Callao was particularly important for Peter Bellwood, so I dug in 2003 my first excavation."

He dug only 1.3 meters into the cave's surface but there he found breakthrough evidence of human activity dated to be around 25,000 to 26,000 years old.

In 2006, Mijares decided to teach in his alma mater again, and became an active part of the faculty, on top of his archaeological work. "I was then juggling between the search, teaching and administration."

While in the Diliman University, Mijares earned several awards, including:

• University of the Philippines Diliman 2008 Centennial Professorial Chair Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2010 Centennial Faculty Grantee Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2011 Centennial Professorial Chair Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2011 Centennial Professorial Chair Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2012 Centennial Faculty Grantee Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2012 University of the Philippines Diliman International Publication Award (Article-ISI)
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2013-2014 Centennial Faculty Grantee Awards
• University of the Philippines Diliman 2014 International Publication Award (Book Chapter)

Still, the UP archaeology professor continued to put in the work in Callao. He told CNN Philippines the work was difficult, and securing permits to dig in the cave was just as hard -- since he had to acquire permits from the provincial office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as well as permits from the governor's office.

And while most digs would only take two to three weeks, his took six.

"It is a six-week excavation. Tuloy-tuloy 'yon [That's continuous]," he said. "But preparing for it -- in the early days I have to go by bus. I would leave on a Sunday evening, be in Tuguegarao by Monday morning, have a meeting with DENR, get my permits, then I go back to Manila."

Excavations happened roughly every four years. These digs did not come cheap either, as Mijares' team would need grants for excavation to cover expenses which may reach up to P1 million pesos.

"What I do for Callao per se, unlike other archaeologists who dig every year, I only dig on an odd year," Mijares explained. "You need to have a cycle. Excavating a cave site like Callao is very expensive. One needs to publish first to be able to get funding."

The funding was used for research and work with his foreign collaborators. Mijares led a four-man team, composed of paleoanthropolist Florent Detroit from the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, zooarcheaologist Philip Piper from the Australia National University, and Rainer Grun of Griffith University.

And when they found the first foot bone in 2007, Mijares knew it was a significant discovery.

"In 2007, we already had that inclination. That there's a possibility," he explained. But Mijares was shot down by scientific journals, which required him to have more material for study before they could help fund his other excavations.

A photo of the excavation site in Callao Cave, Peñablanca, Cagayan in 2007.

Mijares, however, said the years of work was worth it, as he's proud of and happy with his output.

"The opportunity to name a new species is difficult and rare. That per se, for me, is a major contribution to knowledge. And for this to happen in the Philippines, although I collaborate with foreigners, I am a very nationalistic person," he explained.

As a Filipino, the UP professor dreams of providing Filipino contributions to the world's body of knowledge.

"Before you see, most anthropologists are foreigners," he said. "The Tabon Man was discovered by Robert Fox, an American. You always see all these foreigners leading these discovery. Now, even though I'm collaborating with foreigners, I am the head of the project. This is my project, and I am a Filipino."

But his work does not stop with the global recognition. Mijares said he will continue digging in Callao Cave, adding he will also conduct a two-year excavation project in Bulacan to know when the Homo Sapiens, the ancestors of modern humans, first set foot in Luzon.

The professor also said he is continuously surveying Panay Island and Palawan as well, in hopes of making more archaeological discoveries.

But he explained he won't unearth these all by himself.

"There are a lot of potentials also there. But what I want right now is not for me to personally leave those digs but to let my students now take over those sites. 'Cause I'm training my students, and later on, give them the opportunity to lead those excavations," he said.