A Filipino archaeologist’s mission to make prehistory relevant today

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Archaeologist Mylene Lising likes to have scientific replicas of early human skulls to help audiences visualize the content of her lectures, such as (from left): the femur of a rhino from Rizal, Kalinga; a 3-D printout of the third right metatarsal bone of the Callao Man from Cagayan; the skull cap of the Tabon Man from Palawan; Homo floresiensis or “LB1” from Flores, Indonesia; Homo erectus “Sangiran 17” from Java, Indonesia; Homo neanderthalensis from La Ferrassie, France; Australopithecus afarensis or the famous “Lucy”; and Sahelanthropus tchadensis or “Toumaï.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The archaeologist Mylene Lising says she “came into the game pretty late.”

Growing up in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, she lived 40 minutes east of modern-day Kalinga, where stegodon fossils were found, and 40 minutes west of Callao Cave in Peñablanca, where the oldest human fossil in the Philippines was excavated. “That kind of stuck to the back of my mind,” she says about her childhood.

But it was only when her fine arts professor asked her to do a research paper on prehistoric art in the Philippines that she first did any in-depth learning on archaeology. From then on, she never looked back.

mylene lising As she specializes in cultural heritage management, Lising likes to think of herself as an interpreter. “You have to understand both languages,” she says. “I needed to be able to read the papers, the articles, and I need to be able to ask them the proper questions for clarification before I can interpret it and make it understandable and interesting to the general public.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

While studying to get where she is today, Lising found herself asking questions that could change the course of her career: “Why am I going into this field? Is it only for my amusement? Parang, that’s so vague.” She said that her work in archaeology had to serve a bigger purpose. It had to add value to people’s lives. That’s how she decided to focus on cultural heritage management.

Cultural heritage management involves the identification, interpretation, maintenance, and preservation of various heritage assets. While it mostly concerns physical cultural elements, such as ruins and remains, it can also refer to languages and practices. It’s not something that is meant to be kept only within the confines of the archaeological world, though: Specialists like Lising are the link between the experts and the communities they are excavating in.

mylene lising As a kid, Lising was already living near a historic site, which influenced her eventual interest in archaeology. “Peñablanca is where the paternal side of my family is from,” says Lising. “So Callao Cave, where the oldest human fossil in the Philippines was found in 2007, was practically my backyard.” A 3-D printed replica of the third right metatarsal bone of this fossil is pictured on the right side of the foreground. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

Whether she is asked to speak about her team’s research to government officials or everyday civilians, she is concerned with interpreting and presenting these cultural elements in a way that makes these findings relevant to people’s lives.

However, cultural heritage management is not as simple as making a presentation on someone’s work. “As an interpreter, you have to understand both languages,” Lising says. “I need to be able to read the papers, the articles, and I need to be able to ask [archaeologists] the proper questions for clarification before I can interpret [them] and make [them] understandable and interesting to the general public.”

When she joined excavation teams in both the province of Kalinga and the Cagayan municipality of Peñabalanca — the two sites she has been familiar with ever since she was a child — Lising learned that making prehistory relevant went beyond making prehistory interesting. Her biggest challenges have a lot to do with with a group of people that are normally found in fairy tales: treasure hunters. “There would always be a persistent rumor [among the residents of the town] whenever there’s an archaeologist that shows up,” she explains. “‘Oh, they’re treasure hunters. They’re looking for gold.’” And actual treasure hunters have beat Lising and her team to the sites multiple times, leaving deep holes that Lising and some of her colleagues have nearly fallen into. “They excavate recklessly,” she laments. “They destroy the sites.”

mylene lising Whenever she travels, Lising likes to collect replicas of historic artifacts and symbols that are important to a country’s history and culture. Some countries she’s traveled to include Thailand, Austria, France, South Africa, and Ethiopia. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

While Lising’s teams do not search for gold, it’s because of these rumors that it has been difficult for them to convince the towns otherwise. But this ignorance is not at the fault of the townspeople. “Archaeology in the Philippines [is] a very expert-centric field,” Lising explains. “[Archaeologists] are so particular about not talking about [a find] until it’s published in a peer-reviewed journal.” This is the kind of behavior that has been prevalent in the field ever since excavations started in the 1970s.

When Lising joined the Kalinga excavation team of the University of the Philippines Archaeological Society in 2014, she was determined to change that. She then made what was considered a radical move in the field of archaeology: She invited the locals to come to their site in Kalinga and see how they worked. Within one week, she saw at least 750 students walk three kilometers through mountains just to learn more about their research. “They didn’t realize the value of it to them,” she says. “They didn’t realize what the value of their town is in the bigger picture.”

mylene lising “I came into the [archaeology] game pretty late,” says Mylene Lising. Pictured are a few titles from her small home library, which she is currently building. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO  

Lising’s work in cultural heritage management doesn’t stop at the northern end of Luzon. For one thing, while she was working toward her master’s degree in 2013, her coursework gave her the opportunity to excavate in the historic archaeological site in Dmanisi, Georgia, where  the remains of the earliest humans outside of Africa had been found. (It’s where the most remarkably preserved skull in human history was excavated, along with many other artifacts. So well-preserved were these fossils, in fact, that experts in the field initially couldn’t believe that they were real.) When the general director of the Georgian National Museum asked Lising if she would be interested in making an exhibit of the Georgian hominids in the Philippines, she jumped at the opportunity.

She then founded Traveling Museum PH, and with Marites Cuisia, owner of the brand management firm Cozos, she mounted the exhibit “The First Humans Out of Africa.” They are currently touring universities around Metro Manila, and so far, the response has been overwhelming. The exhibits of the skulls themselves are geared toward college students and professors, but those in primary and secondary schools have been stopping by their school’s libraries to see the historic finds. While the lectures are always full, the most popular aspect of the exhibit is the sandbox activity, where attendees are welcome to join simulations of excavations. Having allotted only 20 slots for the activity, Lising has been shocked to find at least 60 students across all levels signing up to participate. “This experiment is showing that there is a lot of interest in prehistory, in human evolution, in archaeology,” she says, “so it’s a matter of delivering the information in a way that is interesting and relevant to them.”

Lising uses this view to fuel her desire to expand Traveling Museum PH. “We live in a society that kills flying lemurs because it believes that they are the pets of aswangs,” Lising says. “We need not live with our superstitions. We need a stronger program in the sciences. We need to promote education in more ways than one, not just the traditional way.”

mylene lising Scientific replicas of the Homo neanderthalensis from La Ferrassie, France (left) and the Australopithecus afarensis or the famous “Lucy." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO