Quezon Fieldschool 2014

3rd International Fieldschool , Tabon Cave, Quezon, Palawan

Group picture caveQuezon area, in Palawan Island, is a land of contrasts, where a storm can darken a bright blue sky in a matter of minutes…and such are the pictures one might take in the Tabon cave after climbing the stairs that guide the visitor in the Lipuun Point Reservation.

The bright picture comes first: the ‘spirit’ of the site, the visit of a place classified as National Treasure by the Filipino Government, where one can follow the tracks of the early representatives of our own species, these anatomically modern humans (see the famous Tabon frontal bone excavated by Robert Fox in the early 1960s) who conquered the archipelagos and, and behaved in such a simple way we might easily copy today, halting in a cave and making fire some 35,000 years ago…

However, that feeling is fastly followed by the more cloudy picture, the one that is fostered by the naïve but so relevant questions the young visitor asks to the scientist: how to explain the piling of colour-contrasted layers, where in that cave filling do we spot the exact period when humans colonized the Lipuun Point, what were the landscape and the climate at the time, how did the humans adapt to it?

While trying to answer, we realize how complex is that so valuable prehistoric site, take multiple mental notes of the work that remains to be done, and for sure decide to come again to complement, with a multidisciplinary approach, the study of what is part of our universal heritage.

The second case study about the Tabon cave was carried out from July 7 to 26, 2014. Let’s remind that Tabon cave was chosen as a privileged object by PREHsea for various reasons:

  • it addresses a major scientific question in the region regarding human evolution and adaptation;
  • it is included in a well delimitated area (the Lipuun Point) where cultural and natural heritage cannot be dissociated, and which is inscribed as such on the Tentative List of the World Heritage;
  • for a long time, the Lipuun Point stimulates the interest and the concern of various stakeholders, from the local communities up to the national authorities and international organisations (e.g. UNESCO), via Local Government Unit and Provincial authorities: much convincing from this point is the dynamism of the smaller local museum (Quezon Branch of the National Museum).

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Basically, such a “case study” is an actual multi-purpose and multi-disciplinary activity, that involves numerous groups related to the above mentioned stakeholders: scientists, heritage professionals, students from various levels, disciplines and origins (from four countries, local, national and foreign universities, bachelor up to PhD), elementary and high school teachers and students, tourism professionals and private sector representatives. The permanent team included c. 40 persons, a number that increases to several hundreds if we account for the people that were occasionally involved in one or more of the activities. The goal they pursue, whether in the field or in the museum is multi-facetted:

  • Collecting new field data helping to understand the site complexity and precise its chronology, the latter becoming more puzzling when we consider the dramatic impact of bioturbation and former treasure hunters activity, that destroyed part of the stratigraphy; looking for the best sedimentary features that can help to reconstruct the palaeoenvironment of the Lipuun Point, at least during the period called Upper Pleistocene (since c. 120,000 years ago).
  • Sorting out, rebagging, registering and analysing the abundant ‘old’ collections gathered during early researches, the importance of which having partly remained unnoticed at the time (e.g. some re-discovered human fossils; the amazing reconstructions of potteries such as jar burials; the abundant flake tools that document human daily behaviour); foreseeing the implementation of new analytical methods on this valuable mobile heritage (e.g. radiometric dating, mineralogical characterization); facilitating its further access for the visitors and the scientific community.
  • Contextualizing the Tabon complex in the frame of other local and provincial environment and cultural heritage initiatives (e.g. fieldtrip carried out with the local Cave Assessment Group from the LGU; seminar organized together with El Nido area representatives; new GIS location of other caves in the Lipuun Point).
  • Collaborating with local authorities for the purpose of dissemination: design of communication and touristic documents, lectures in schools, group visits etc.
  • Making use of the overall program in Quezon as a field school in research and heritage management for the involved students, including daily seminars that can range from the scientifically specialized one up to public dissemination methods.

The PREHsea international group is truly thankful to its Filipino partner (National Museum of the Philippines), to the Quezon Municipality, to the members of the Quezon Branch of the National Museum, and to the provincial and local institutions and authorities involved in the project (Palawan State University, Provincial Department of Tourism etc.) for the active part they played in the case study and for the material help they provided.

Any discovery, any activity leads to new scientific questions, opens new perspectives in terms of heritage management, and also make us better realize the difficulty of the task, often reflected by animated discussions. Even though so much remains to be done, no frustration must be faced when the end of the meeting comes: it was just one more step completed in the good direction, and the smile of the youngest members of the team is a warrant for that.

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