Scientists Unearth Earliest Human Structure, Reveal Woodwork

The discovery redefines archaeologists understanding of the evolution of early human technology and its use of building materials.

Thu 21 Sep 23


Global Archaeologists have discovered evidence of the world’s oldest human-built structure, with an extinct species of humans from the Stone Age believed to have used timber to build shelters.

The find, published in Nature Journal, reveals that the structure is 476,000 years old – at least twice as old as any other structure of its type – and was likely used by a now-extinct species known as Homo heidelbergensis.

It also predates the oldest known example of an ancient wooden discovery, a 400,000-year-old spear in prehistoric sands at Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, in 1911.

Researchers from the UK, Belgium and Zambia-based Deep Roots of Humanity project made the discovery and are involved in excavating and analysing ancient examples of timber.

They claim that because the ancient artefacts were waterlogged, they were “perfectly restored for half a million years.”

The ancient wood was preserved in riverbed sediments.

The discovery by Professor Larry Barham from the University of Liverpool could challenge the current belief that ancient humans led simple, nomadic lives.

“They made something new, large and from wood,” Professor Barham said.

Professor Barham’s team discovered waterlogged ground in northern Zambia in southern Africa, finding “at least twice as old as any other known human-made structure.”

The team believes the timber was used to build an elevated trackway across marshland – or as a raised platform in the middle of a wetland area, “perhaps as part of a hunting base or butchery facility.”

The logs were found just a few hundred metres upstream from two of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders – a 235-metre high waterfall and a 300-metre deep canyon.

The 235-metre-high Kalambo Falls on the Zambia/Tanzania border were part of a remarkable area of prehistoric activity. (Photo Credit: Deep Roots of Humanity research project and University of Liverpool)

The falls and the unusually varied local topography were likely indirectly responsible for attracting early human hunter-gatherers to the area, including the world’s first construction “engineers” and carpenters.

“They used their intelligence, imagination and skills to create something they’d never seen before, something that had never existed.”

Several ancient wooden tools were also uncovered, including digging sticks, “But what excited the team most were two pieces of wood found at right angles to each other,” Professor Barham said.

Professor Geoff Duller, an archaeologist from the University of Aberystwyth, said, “One is lying over the other, and both pieces of wood have notches cut into them.

This 1.5-metre-long timber was worked and shaped by members of an extinct species of humans half a million years ago. (Photo Credit: Deep Roots of Humanity research project and University of Liverpool)

“You can see stone tools have cut those notches,” he said, “It makes the two logs fit together to become structural objects.”

Perrice Nokombe from the Zambia-based Livingstone Museum was “amazed that woodworking had such an ancient tradition,” it dawned on him that “the team had uncovered something extraordinary.”

Until now, evidence for the human use of wood has been limited to making fire and crafting tools such as digging sticks and spears, but the latest find has challenged that assumption.

According to the team, the size of the two logs, the smaller of which is about 1.5m, suggests whoever fitted them together was building something substantial.

A diagram of the 1.5-metre piece of timber. (Photo Credit: Deep Roots of Humanity research project and University of Liverpool)

The team says that unlike a hut or permanent dwelling, it could have formed part of a shelter platform.

“It might be some sort of structure to sit beside the river and fish,” Professor Duller, “but it’s hard to tell what sort of [complete] structure it might have been.”

Scientists created models to show how overlapping logs could have been used.

Experts at Aberystwyth University undertook the specialist dating of the finds.

“At this great age, putting a date on finds is very challenging,” Professor Duller said.

“Luminescence dating allows us to date much further back in time, to piece together sites that give us a glimpse into human evolution.” 

Transported to the UK for analysis and preservation, the wooden artefacts are being stored in tanks that mimic the waterlogging that preserved them so beautifully for the last half-million years.

 But they will soon return to Zambia to be displayed.

“With this discovery, we hope to enrich our collection and use the finds to inform the interpretation of the woodworking tradition in Zambia,” Ms Nkombwe said.

Continuing the work at the Kalambo Falls site, she added, “has the potential to deepen our knowledge of ancient woodworking techniques, craftsmanship, and human interactions with the environment”.


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