Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest wooden structure ever created by humans, nearly half a million years old, a complex structure that required advanced technical skills of early humans, according to a study published Wednesday.
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The exceptionally well-preserved structure was discovered at the prehistoric site of Kalambo Falls in what is now Zambia and is at least 476,000 years old, predating the supposed appearance of our own species, Homo sapiens.
According to the study published in Nature, it consists of two interlocking tree trunks connected transversely by a notch intentionally designed to build a structure, likely the foundation of a raised platform, passageway or habitat.
A collection of wooden tools was also unearthed at the site, including a digging stick.
The use of wood by humans in such ancient times was already documented, but only for limited purposes: for making fires or for sharpening sticks for hunting or gathering.
The oldest known wooden structure is only 9,000 years old, explains Larry Barham, professor at the British University of Liverpool and lead author of the study, to AFP.
The archaeologist did not expect to find such a treasure when he excavated the prehistoric site of Kalambo, located on the banks of the river of the same name above 235-meter-high waterfalls.
“It is rare to find wood in such ancient sites as it usually rots and disappears. But at Kalambo Falls it was preserved by persistently high water levels,” the authors explain in a press release.
During the first excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, pieces of wood were found that could not be dated.
The new pieces, discovered in 2019, revealed their age through luminescence dating of the deposits surrounding the objects – the method allows us to determine when they were last exposed to sunlight before being buried, explains Professor Geoff Duller of Aberystwyth University in Wales. Co-author.
Conclusion: The deposits are at least 476,000 years old, “which proves that this site is much older than we thought,” emphasizes the scientist. And that it was inhabited long before Homo sapiens, whose oldest fossils are around 300,000 years old.
Research has not been able to determine which human lineage was at work, but Professor Barham does not rule out the possibility that it was Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species that lived between about 700,000 and 220,000 years B.C. lived.
Apart from the fossil of a Homo heidelbergensis skull discovered in Zambia in the 1920s, “there is no other known hominin in the region”.
The discovery definitely “changed” his view of our first ancestors. “They used their intelligence to change their environment and make their lives easier, even if only by building a platform to sit on the river bank,” the archaeologist deciphers.
And he managed to create “something they had never seen before”: unlike the size of a stick, which is easy to observe and imitate, the creation of two pieces in terms of their assembly, in his opinion, shows the ability to Abstraction.
“The fact that they were able to manipulate wood on a large scale presupposes cognitive skills such as planning, visualizing the finished product before its conception, and mentally moving objects in space,” notes prehistorian Sophie Archambault de Beaune , professor at the University Jean Moulin Lyon 3 , who was not involved in the work.
“These skills were already derived from the study of stone tools” common in antiquity, however, emphasizes the researcher interviewed by AFP.
According to the study authors, the structure was conducive to “sustained occupation,” which “challenges the idea that these early people were nomadic.”
“At Kalambo Falls, not only did they have a permanent source of water, but the forest that surrounded them also provided them with enough food to settle and build structures,” they say.
A hypothesis that still needs to be proven, because they could also be “seasonal installations”, comments Sophie Archambault de Beaune.