Colombo Falls, Zambia: Archaeologists unearth the oldest wooden structure in the world

Professor Larry Barham/University of Liverpool

An excavation team uncovered a wooden structure on the banks of the Colombo River in Zambia.

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Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest wooden structure, and it is about half a million years old.

The simple structure – found on the banks of a river in Zambia – is made of two interlocking logs, with a notch at the top deliberately designed so that they fit together at right angles. Could be, according to a new study of stone tool marks. .

Geoff Diller, professor of geography and earth sciences at Aberystwyth University in the UK, was part of the team that made the discovery in 2019. The structure, excavated upstream of the Colombo Falls near Zambia’s border with Tanzania, may have been used to dry food or wood or perhaps as a foundation on which to build a dwelling, he said. One has been part of a wooden platform. A digging stick and other wooden tools were found from the same place.

“That the wood is in place and intact for half a million years is extraordinary. And it gives us this real insight, a window into that time.”

“It completely changed my view of what people were capable of back then,” he added.

Wood specimens are rarely preserved in the archaeological record, especially at such an ancient site, because organic material easily decays and disintegrates. In Colombo, Diller said the high water table and fine sediment surrounding the structure helped preserve the wood.

Diller said the discovery challenges the prevailing view that Stone Age humans led a nomadic lifestyle. Colombo Falls would have provided a reliable source of water and plenty of food for the surrounding forest, perhaps allowing for more settlement.

“At least, they’re putting a lot of effort into this place,” he said.

According to the study, the wooden structure has no real parallel in the archaeological record.

Professor Geoff Diller/Aberystwyth University

The wooden structure was found at an archaeological site upstream of Colombo Falls in Zambia.

The oldest known wooden specimen is a 780,000-year-old piece of polished plaque found at Gesher Benoit Yaakov, Israel, while the earliest recorded wooden tools for foraging and hunting—discovered in Europe—ca. 400,000 years old. . Neanderthals are believed to have built structures from bones or stalactites around 175,000 years ago.

Diller compared the technique used to connect the structure’s parts to Lincoln Logs, a children’s building toy made of small logs that are locked together by square notches. He said that it is impossible for the two logs to grow and connect naturally.

“Colleagues have made modern replicas of the stone tools we see and worked on wood of similar density, and we can see that the shape of these marks is similar,” Diller said. “So that’s what makes us really confident (that) it’s not a natural process — it’s been done deliberately using stone tools.”

Professor Larry Barham/University of Liverpool

Shown is one of four tools found on the site. According to the researchers, the tool was used to shape wooden structures.

The pieces of wood were old enough to be dated directly using radiocarbon techniques. Instead, the team used a technique called luminescence dating, which involves measuring the natural radiation in minerals in the fine sediments that surround the wood to determine when it was last exposed to sunlight. had come

This dating method dated the structure to 476,000 years old and determined that four wooden tools – a wedge, digging stick, cut log and notched branch – go back 324,000 years.

Researchers aren’t sure which race of ancient humans made the structures and wooden tools, but it’s highly unlikely that it was our own. Diller said the oldest Homo sapiens fossils date back to about 300,000 years ago and were found in what is now Israel.

The complexity of the structure suggests that the people who built it were cognitively sophisticated and were able to create and execute a complex plan — something that likely required the use of language, he said. There was a need.

Professor Geoff Diller/Aberystwyth University

Larry Barham (right), professor of archeology at the University of Liverpool, carefully exposes a wooden structure on a river bank with a fine spray.

In a commentary published with the research, archeologist Dr Animaek Milks, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Reading in the UK, wrote that the discovery suggests a time when people structurally altered the planet for their own benefit. started. The paper also showed that the material used widely in the present day played an important role in the Stone Age.

“Studies like this highlight the role of this humble material in the human story,” said Milks, who was not involved in the research.

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