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Humankind’s tangled shrub of ancestry now has a new branch: Researchers in the Philippines announced today that they have discovered a species of ancient human previously unknown to science.

The small-bodied hominin, named Homo luzonensis, lived on the island of Luzon at least 50,000 to 67,000 years ago. The hominin—identified from a total of seven teeth and six small bones—hosts a patchwork of ancient and more advanced features. The landmark discovery, announced in Nature on Wednesday, makes Luzon the third Southeast Asian island in the last 15 years to bear signs of unexpectedly ancient human activity.

“For a long, long time, the Philippine islands [have] been more or less left [out],” says study coauthor and project leader Armand Mijares, an archaeologist at the University of the Philippines Diliman and a National Geographic grantee. But H. luzonensis flips the script, and it continues to challenge the outdated idea that the human line neatly progressed from less advanced to more advanced species.

“This new discovery made me thrilled,” Yousuke Kaifu, a paleoanthropologist at Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science who was not part of the new study, says via email. “It further highlights remarkable diversity of archaic (primitive) hominins once present in Asia, in a way beyond my expectation.”

Aida Gómez-Robles, a paleoanthropologist at University College London who reviewed the study before publication, is hesitant to unequivocally say the find represents a new species. But she adds that all possibilities to explain the unusual fossils are equally intriguing.

“It’s absolutely one of the most important findings that [will] be out in a number of years,” she says.

Digging deeper into Asia’s past

Decades ago, the story of Asia seemed far more straightforward, if 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. Read more

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