Rio Constantino

Today marks the 51st celebration of Earth Day. Ironically, despite taking the planet as a symbol every 22nd of April, we have also had an odd tendency to forget how young we are compared to our ancient home. To put things in perspective, many of the species currently inhabiting the Earth have been around for millions of years. And yet, somehow, entire ecosystems are in danger of being erased in the blink of an eye, threatened by an economic system run with unfettered avarice, set aflame by a monstrous fossil fuel industry like a parasite willing to slay itself and its host if only to satiate its thirst for profits.

How do we think of our tiny blip in the universe? What exactly will be our place in the planet’s history? There are many ways to answer such questions, but each one, it seems, will require an ability to remember better.

A long, long time ago, the Philippines had rhinos, antelopes, and elephants. We know this because of the teeth they left behind. In 1954, a scientific catalog of fossil mammals in the country included the following finds: an antelope tooth fished out from a Pasig well, an elephant’s molar found by a Cuban collector in the hills of Pangasinan, and the fractured remains of a rhino jaw unearthed by local prospectors in northern Cagayan.

Once upon a time, these prehistoric animals roamed the archipelago. And then, it seems, just as suddenly they were gone.

Paleontology is the study of extinct flora and fauna. It’s also a word frequently associated with dinosaurs, T-rexes, and Jurassic Park. As a consequence, discoveries smaller than a Stegodon tend to find themselves relegated to obscurity, which is a shame because there’s far more to learn about the deep past than just dinosaurs.

Case in point: who knew we even had rhinos in the first place? Or antelopes, or elephants? In the present, people don’t generally associate the Philippines with large mammals. And yet, as the fossil record points out, we had our fair share of them in the distant past. Everyone knows the Tamaraw, Bubalus mindorensis, a rare dwarf buffalo endemic to Mindoro. Not many know of Bubalus cebuensis, an extinct relative whose fossilized remains were found in neighboring Cebu.

So far the focus has been on animals. What about plants? Every flowering plant produces a distinct type of pollen grain, whose appearance is unique enough that, using a microscope, you can identify a plant from its pollen alone. Over thousands of years, layers of pollen deposit themselves into the ground, forming layers of microscopic plant fossils, from which scientists can estimate the composition and extent of ancient forests over time.

In the land around Paoay Lake in Ilocos, for example, widespread logging during the 20th century led to extensive changes in the landscape. At present, the area is dominated by cultivated land. But what did it look like in the past? By examining the lake mud and the different kinds of pollen contained within, a team of researchers inferred that, 5,000 years ago, much of the land around Paoay Lake was dominated by pine forests interspersed with coastal savannas.

The researchers also found that, 3,500 years ago, the amount of pine pollen falling into Paoay Lake suddenly decreased, accompanied by a rapid increase in charcoal sediments. Charcoal indicates fire. The researchers had two hypotheses. First, they knew that also around 3,500 years ago, the Philippine climate became hotter and drier. Perhaps this increased the incidence of forest fire, which would have devastated the pine forests, and also explain the increase of charcoal sediments.

Second, humans could have also set the fires to clear the land for agriculture. By that time, Austronesians had already landed on Philippine shores. The Austronesians also introduced with them domestic animals likes pigs and dogs, and the cultivation of crops like rice, yam, and taro.

Were humans responsible? Was it climate? Or both? The answer is uncertain. What’s clear, however, is the need for more research, and an understanding that natural history can often intertwine with human history as well. Going back to animals, in 2014, an international team of researchers excavated a near complete rhino skeleton in Kalinga. This time it wasn’t just a jaw. Almost everything was intact, including bones from all four limbs and a set of dusty vertebra.

The skeleton by itself would have been amazing enough. But just as significant were the several cut marks on the bones, and the 57 stone tools, all bearing signs of human manufacture, found in the same dig site. Subsequent dating placed the tools at around 700,000 years old, much earlier than previous estimations of when early hominins first arrived in the Philippines.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, someone was enjoying rhino meat for dinner. Did our ancestors hunt their rhino prey to extinction? Or did the rhinos die out because of other causes, like a change in temperature or annual rainfall?

The past can be read even from the tiniest motes of fossilized pollen, and doing so may yield surprising insights for both our present and future. How did our ancestors interact with their environment? Given the Philippines is already a biodiversity hotspot, how many more extinct species of flora and fauna lie under the soil? And, just as important, how might our ecosystems react in response to more dramatic changes in the global climate? Perhaps some ancient tooth out there will have the answers.

Centuries into the future, how many more species will have gone the way of the rhino? Will we still be around to ask the question? I hope so. I think so. There might even be people still celebrating Earth Day, in recognition of the time when their ancestors acted in concert to stop climate change at the most critical juncture of their history – which is now.