Wood has always been an important material for us humans. Archaeologists in Zambia have now discovered the oldest evidence of a prehistoric wooden structure to date. It is a thick branch with a U-shaped cavity on the underside and a tree trunk whose upper end fits perfectly into this notch by narrowing it. Traces of processing indicate that this collection was not created by chance, but was assembled by Stone Age human ancestors using stone tools and fire. At least 476,000 years old, it is the oldest known man-made wooden structure. But what it was used for and who built it is still unknown.
Numerous archaeological finds prove that early representatives of our species, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, made and used stone tools. Pre-humans from the time of Australopithecus may have already made the first simple stone tools, as finds dating back more than 2.5 million years in Kenya suggest. On the other hand, prehistoric weapons or tools made of wood are much younger and younger in age because they rarely last thousands of years. “As a result, we have limited information about when and how hominins used this raw material,” explained Larry Parham of the University of Liverpool and his colleagues. The oldest clearly dated wooden implements to date include throwing sticks and wooden spears from Schöningen in Lower Saxony, which are about 300,000 years old and likely come from Homo heidelbergensis. In Africa, a sharp wooden stick about 250,000 years old is the oldest evidence of early human woodworking.
T-shaped connection between rafters
New discoveries from Zambia now prove that our ancestors began using wood for more than just fuel much earlier. Barham and his team discovered evidence of this above the Kalambo Waterfall in Zambia. There, shortly before the river flowed into Lake Tanganyika, archaeologists had already discovered possible traces of early human presence in the 1950s and 1960s. During new excavations at this site, Barham and his colleagues have now found five additional pieces of wood that show signs of processing. Age determination using scintillation dating of the layers of the finds in question showed that these wooden objects are between 476,000 and 322,000 years old. The two oldest finds are located under the surface of the water and form a group of a 1.41-metre-long beam located across the end of a larger tree trunk.
Closer inspection revealed a U-shaped cavity about eleven centimeters wide on the underside of the upper beam. “The tree trunk underneath is also treated and matches this grade,” the researchers say. Both pieces of wood sit together as if they were held together by a tongue and notch. “Traces of cutting and scraping can be seen on the surface of the crack,” the archaeologists continued. Some form strikingly parallel lines running across the grains. Infrared spectroscopy revealed that fire was also used to hollow out the fissure. Barham and his team also discovered the effects of similar processing on the area of the tree trunk near the beam. There were also numerous grooves running transversely in the direction of the grain, some of which also had V-shaped traces.
The oldest evidence of a man-made wooden structure
According to archaeologists, these effects indicate that these two wooden pieces were manufactured with stone tools and human hands. “We interpret the incision as having been deliberately created by scraping and chipping to create a connection between the branch and the trunk, forming a structure of two interconnected parts,” Barham and colleagues explain. “The two discoveries illustrate the basic concept of masonry: the combination of two or more elements to form a structure.” This means that this wooden structure, more than 476,000 years old, could be one of the oldest evidence of human woodworking – and the oldest wooden structure in the world to date. “This construction is unique, and there is nothing comparable in the African or Eurasian Paleolithic,” the team said.
However, it is unclear what the purpose of connecting the two wooden parts was. Archaeologists suspect that the finds may have originally been part of some type of platform, track fortification or dwelling. This may have made life easier for them in the humid and perhaps frequently flooded environment along the river. “These people changed their environment to make their lives easier, even if it was just a platform on which they could sit on the riverbank and do their daily work,” says Barham. “This discovery makes me think differently about our early ancestors; they were more like us than you might think: they used their intelligence, imagination and skills to create something that didn’t exist before.” In an accompanying comment in Nature Writes, archaeologist Anneke Mills of the University of Reading, who was not involved in the study, said: “Such studies underscore the role this humble material has played in human history, while also revealing when humans began reshaping the planet for their own purposes.” “.
Source: Lawrence Barham (University of Liverpool) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06557-9)
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