(CN) — Prehistoric humans may have been building with wood and establishing permanent settlements for longer than archaeologists had thought, according to a research team investigating the discovery of well-preserved wood in Africa.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers from the University of Liverpool and Aberystwyth University in the U.K. detail the excavation of five wooden objects from nearly half a million years ago in Kalambo Falls, Zambia.
The team found wood with what seem to be intentional notches and scrapings, as well as two purposefully interlocking logs.
Archaeologists say the discovery may recontextualize our interpretation of prehistory.
“This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors," said Larry Barham, a researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology and lead author of the paper.
"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.”
Kalambo Falls has been the site of discoveries of early human settlements for nearly 70 years. High water levels at the falls submerged and preserved the wood pieces, saving them from rotting — the usual fate of ancient wooden structures.
Using a novel luminescence dating method to reveal when sand near the discoveries was last exposed to sunlight, researchers determined that the wood could be traced back at least 476,000 years — predating even Homo sapiens and making the find the oldest wooden structure ever discovered.
Before now, evidence for human use of wood has been limited to fire sticks or spears, but nothing as complex as a structure the archaeologists believe could have been part of a platform or dwelling. The way the wood was joined recalls hafting, or joining an artifact to a handle or haft.
“The interlocking logs from BLB5 anticipate hafting’s core concept: the combination of two or more parts to make a construction, enhancing our understanding of the technical recognition of these toolmakers," the authors wrote in the study. "Exceptional conditions of preservation give us this glimpse of a capacity to create a built environment by hominins hitherto perceived as mobile foragers with limited technological diversity," the researchers said.
“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,” Barham said in a statement.
Archaeologists are hoping that this finding will prompt UNESCO to move Kalambo Falls off of its tentative list, where it has been sitting for nearly 30 years, and establish it as a full-fledged Word Heritage Site.
“The site at Kalambo Falls had been excavated back in the 1960s when similar pieces of wood were recovered, but they were unable to date them, so the true significance of the site was unclear until now,” said Professor Geoff Duller of Aberystwyth University in Wales. “Our research proves that this site is much older than previously thought, so its archaeological significance is now even greater. It adds more weight to the argument that it should be a United Nations World Heritage Site.”
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