Researchers in Zambia have uncovered a simple wooden structure from the early Stone Age that may be the earliest evidence of wood being used structurally by humans. Two logs were crossed over each other at a right angle and locked together by a notch cut into the wood. This structure was found upstream of Kalambo Falls, towards the edge of Zambia’s Northern border. These logs were dated to be almost half a million years old or around 476,000 years. The researchers aren’t sure which ancient species of human actually made this structure, but it was more than likely not homo sapiens, who didn’t first appear until about 100,000 years later. The oldest known artifact is a plank of polished wood that was dated to be around 700,000 years old. It was found at the site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel. They were able to date the logs using Luminescence dating, or testing to see when the last time a mineral was exposed to sunlight or extreme heat by measuring the energy of the photons that are being released. This construction of logs has no others like it in Eurasia or Africa. At the same site, the scientists were also able to uncover 4 wooden tools from about 390,000 years ago to 324,000 years ago. These artifacts included a wedge, a digging stick, a cut log, and a notched branch.
These objects give the data to be able to move the age range of woodworking in Africa further back. All of this information was written in a study published on Wednesday, September 20. “It took me a while before I appreciated what we were looking at,” said the study's author Larry Barham, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool. “It didn’t look very nice, to be honest. But it is much more complex than I thought.” Barham and his team think the logs could have been part of a much larger and more complex structure such as a walkway or platform. Wood usually decomposes extremely fast when exposed to the elements making it extremely rare to find evidence of how our ancestors used the resource. These logs were luckily submerged in the river keeping them from decaying. So when they were uncovered in 2019, the notch and tapering of the ends were still very visible to Barham and his team of researchers. “Everything just looks so fresh, you think, ‘It cannot be this old,” Barham said. There were some pieces of wood similar to these found in the same spot in the 1950s and 1960s, but the decomposing of the wood removed any clear evidence of them being shaped or carved from most of the artifacts. A chip of wood and the pieces with small notches raised some suspicion of intentional cutting but they were unable to prove anything. Geoff Duller, a professor of geography and Earth sciences at the University of Aberystwyth in the United Kingdom and co-author of the paper said, “That the wood has remained in place and intact for half a million years is extraordinary. It gives us this real insight, this window into this time period.”
Barham, L., G. A. T. Duller, I. Candy, C. Scott, C. R. Cartwright, J. R. Peterson, C. Kabukcu, et al. “Evidence for the Earliest Structural Use of Wood at Least 476,000 Years Ago.” Nature News, September 20, 2023. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06557-9.
Burakoff, Maddie. “This Simple Log Structure May Be the Oldest Example of Early Humans Building with Wood.” AP News, September 20, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/early-humans-oldest-structure-zambia-wood-de6350a2c9704477a2df4e0a5ba8d311.
Hunt, Katie. “Archaeologists Unearth Oldest Known Wooden Structure in the World.” CNN, September 21, 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/20/africa/oldest-wooden-structure-zambia-scn/index.html.
Owen Dustin is a sophomore at Poudre High School. This is his first year writing for the Poudre Press. At school, he is on the Alpine Robotics team and the unified flag football team. Outside of school he likes to mountain bike, play video games, and hang out with friends.