Archaeologists have found an ancient wooden structure at the archaeological site of Kalambo Falls in Zambia. This structure — dated to about 476,000 years ago — has no known parallels in the African or Eurasian Paleolithic and may represent the earliest use of wood in construction.
Wooden artifacts rarely survive from the Early Paleolithic as they require exceptional conditions for preservation.
Therefore, archaeologists have limited information about when and how hominins used this basic raw material or how Paleolithic humans structured their environments.
“Our find has changed how I think about our early ancestors,” said University of Liverpool’s Professor Larry Barham.
“Forget the label ‘Stone Age,’ look at what these people were doing: they made something new, and large, from wood.”
“They used their intelligence, imagination, and skills to create something they’d never seen before, something that had never previously existed.”
“They transformed their surroundings to make life easier, even if it was only by making a platform to sit on by the river to do their daily chores. These folks were more like us than we thought.”
Professor Barham and colleagues discovered an ancient wooden structure at the archaeological site of Kalambo Falls, which lies above a 235-m (772-foot) waterfall on the border of Zambia with the Rukwa Region of Tanzania at the edge of Lake Tanganyika.
The structure includes two preserved interlocking logs joined transversely by an intentionally cut notch. The upper log had been shaped, and tool marks were found on both logs.
The logs could have been used to construct a raised platform, walkway or foundation for dwellings in the periodically wet floodplain.
“This discovery challenges the prevailing view that Stone Age humans were nomadic,” the researchers said.
“At Kalambo Falls these humans not only had a perennial source of water, but the forest around them provided enough food to enable them to settle and make structures.”
They used new luminescence dating techniques, which reveal the last time minerals in the sand surrounding the finds were exposed to sunlight, to determine their age.
“At this great age, putting a date on finds is very challenging and we used luminescence dating to do this,” said Aberystwyth University’s Professor Geoff Duller.
“These new dating methods have far reaching implications — allowing us to date much further back in time, to piece together sites that give us a glimpse into human evolution.”
At Kalambo, the scientists also recovered four wood tools from 390,000 to 324,000 years ago, including a wedge, digging stick, cut log and notched branch.
“The finds show an unexpected early diversity of forms and the capacity to shape tree trunks into large combined structures,” the authors concluded.
“These new data not only extend the age range of woodworking in Africa but expand our understanding of the technical cognition of early hominins, forcing re-examination of the use of trees in the history of technology.”
The discovery is reported in a paper in the journal Nature.
L. Barham et al. Evidence for the earliest structural use of wood at least 476,000 years ago. Nature, published online September 20, 2023; doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06557-9