In a groundbreaking discovery that redefines our understanding of early human capabilities, archaeologists have uncovered the oldest known wooden structure, dating back almost half a million years. Unearthed along a riverbank in Zambia, the structure consists of two interlocking logs, fashioned together with a deliberate notch allowing them to fit at right angles. This extraordinary find, made by a team including Geoff Duller, a professor of geography and Earth sciences at the University of Aberystwyth in the United Kingdom, has been meticulously analyzed for signs of ancient tool use.
The wooden structure, believed to have been part of a platform used for various purposes such as a walkway or a base for a dwelling, is a rare and invaluable find in the archaeological record. Wood artifacts seldom endure through the ages due to their organic nature, which easily rots and disintegrates. However, Duller suggests that high water levels and fine sediment encasing the structure at Kalambo Falls, near Zambia’s border with Tanzania, played a crucial role in preserving the wood. This discovery not only offers a unique glimpse into the lives of Stone Age humans but also challenges the prevailing view of their nomadic lifestyle.
Unearthing History: Archaeologists Discover Oldest Known Wooden Structure
Archaeologists have recently uncovered the oldest known wooden structure, dating back nearly half a million years. The structure, found on a riverbank in Zambia, is composed of two interlocking logs, designed with a notch to fit together at right angles. This discovery, made in 2019, has provided a unique insight into the capabilities of early humans and challenges our understanding of their lifestyle.
A Glimpse into the Past
Geoff Duller, a professor of geography and Earth sciences at the University of Aberystwyth in the United Kingdom, was part of the team that unearthed this intriguing find. The structure, found near Kalambo Falls on Zambia’s border with Tanzania, is believed to have been part of a wooden platform used for various purposes such as a walkway, a storage area to keep food or firewood dry, or even a base for a dwelling. Other wooden tools, including a digging stick, were also found at the site.
Duller, coauthor of the study published in Nature, expressed his amazement at the preservation of the wooden structure, stating, "That the wood has remained in place and intact for half a million years is extraordinary. And it gives us this real insight, this window into this time period.” He credited the preservation of the structure to the high water levels and fine sediment at Kalambo that encased and protected the wood.
Challenging Prevailing Views
The discovery of this structure challenges the prevailing view of Stone Age humans as nomadic. The Kalambo Falls would have provided a reliable water source and the surrounding forest ample food, suggesting the possibility of a more settled existence. Duller points out that the existence of such a structure indicates "a huge amount of effort" invested in the site.
The structure has no real parallel in the archaeological record. The earliest known wood artifact is a 780,000-year-old fragment of a polished plank from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, and the oldest wooden tools for foraging and hunting on record, found in Europe, date back about 400,000 years.
The Making of the Structure
Duller compared the technique used to build the structure to Lincoln Logs, a children’s building toy. He dismissed the idea of the logs naturally drifting and linking together. The team replicated the stone tools and worked on woods of similar density, confirming that the shaping of these marks was a result of intentional crafting.
The team used luminescence dating, measuring the natural radioactivity in the minerals in the sediment encasing the wood, to determine the age of the structure. This method dated the structure at 476,000 years old and the four wooden tools found at the site at 324,000 years old.
While it is uncertain which ancient human species constructed the structure and tools, it is unlikely to have been Homo sapiens, as the earliest known fossils of our species date back to around 300,000 years ago. The complexity of the structure suggests that the creators were cognitively sophisticated and likely used language to execute their plan.
This discovery not only offers a window into our past, but also underscores the pivotal role of wood – a material still widely used today – in human history. As Dr. Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, remarks, "Studies such as this one highlight the role of this most humble of materials in the human story."