Stone Age should be renamed the Wood Age

The excavation team uncovers the wooden structure CREDIT Prof Larry Barham University of Liverpool

The Stone Age may have to be renamed the ‘Wood Age’ following the discovery that early humans were building wooden structures nearly half a million years ago, archaeologists have said

The find, reported in the journal Nature, challenges previous assumptions that humans did not begin making wooden structures until around 9,000 BC. Two planks of worked wood, dating back at least 476,000 years, have been found at Kalambo Falls in Zambia, a 772ft waterfall on the border between Zambia and Tanzania.. The pieces of wood may possibly have formed part of a walkway, a raised platform or even a house.

The structure was probably built not by Homo sapiens, but by our far older ancestor Homo heidelbergensis. The idea that the wood could have been worked by animals has been discounted because, although animals use wood to build nests or dams, they do not modify logs or sticks to help them fit together.

According to experts, visible tool marks show that these planks had been modified to fit together in a single interlocking structure. A notch carved into the upper log allowed it to slot into the plank beneath, while the end of the bottom plank was flattened into a thin wedge, possibly to fit into something else. This suggests that a number of planks may have been fitted together to form a wooden platform. The planks were preserved because they had remained in a waterlogged environment cut off from oxygen.

Kalambo Falls, Zambia CREDIT: Professor Geoff Duller, Aberystwyth University

Similar pieces of wood were recovered during excavations at the Kalambo Falls site in the 1960’s, but their significance was unclear as they could not be dated. Now, a team at Aberystwyth University in Wales has been able to determine the age of the wood using new luminescence dating techniques, which reveal the last time minerals in the sand surrounding the finds were exposed to sunlight. Prof Geoff Duller of Aberystwyth University said: “These new methods allow us to date much further back in time, to piece together sites that give us a glimpse into human evolution.“

Prof Larry Barham, from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, said: “This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors. Until this point you had Neanderthals using wood from branches to make spears and roots to make throwing and digging sticks, but as far as we know they didn’t use it as a raw material. They used their intelligence, imagination and skills to create something they’d never seen before, something that had never previously existed.”

Prof Barham added: “We might have to abandon the term Stone Age, because we now know that they were working with stone, bone and wood.”

Until this discovery, the earliest evidence of wooden platforms came from Star Carr near Scarborough in North Yorkshire, a Mesolithic site dating from around 9,000 BC. 

Alun Harvey


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