Half a million year old wooden structure discovered in Zambia

  • Written by Victoria Gill
  • Science correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Jeff Doler

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Professor Larry Barham unveils the wooden structure on the banks of the river

The discovery of ancient wooden logs on the banks of a river in Zambia has changed archaeologists’ understanding of ancient human life.

The researchers found evidence that wood was used to build a structure nearly half a million years ago.

Archaeologist Professor Larry Parham said: “This discovery has changed the way I think about our early ancestors.”

The University of Liverpool scientist is leading the Deep Roots of Humanity research project, which has excavated and analyzed ancient wood.

Image source, Larry Barham

This discovery could change the common belief that ancient humans lived a simple nomadic life.

Professor Barham said: “They made something new and great out of wood.”

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

Researchers also discovered ancient wooden tools, including digging sticks. But what interested them most was finding two pieces of wood at right angles to each other.

Professor Geoff Dowler, an archaeologist at Aberystwyth University, said: “One on top of the other and both pieces of wood are carved into them.”

“You can clearly see that these notches were cut with stone tools.

“It makes the two records fit together to become structural objects.”

Make a fire

Further analysis confirmed that the records are about 476,000 years old.

“I was amazed to learn that the woodwork was a deep tradition,” said team member Pieris Nkombwe, from the Livingstone Museum in Zambia.

“It dawned on me that we had discovered something extraordinary.”

Until now, evidence of human use of wood has been limited to making fires and making tools such as digging sticks and spears.

Luminescence dating

One of the oldest wooden finds was a 400,000-year-old spear in the prehistoric sands of Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, in 1911.

Unless preserved under very specific conditions, the wood simply rots.

But the winding river banks above Kalambo Falls, near the border between Zambia and Tanzania, have been waterlogged and essentially pickled for thousands of years.

The team measured the age of the layers of earth in which they were buried, using scintillation dating.

The rock grains absorb natural radioactivity from the environment over time, essentially being charged like little batteries, Professor Dowler said.

This radioactivity can be released and measured by heating the grains and analyzing the emitted light.

Image source, Michael Bayless

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Scientists have created models to show how nested records are used

The size of the two logs, the smaller of which is about 1.5 meters (5 ft), indicates that whoever joined them together was building something large.

The team says it is unlikely to be a hut or permanent dwelling, but could be part of a shelter platform.

“It might be a kind of structure to sit by the river and fish,” Professor Dowler said.

“But it’s hard to know what kind [complete] The structure might have been.”

Image source, Larry Barham

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Ancient wood has been preserved in river bottom sediments

It’s also unclear what species of ancient man – or humans – built them.

No bones have been found at this site yet.

Imitation carpentry

“It could have been Homo sapiens “We have not discovered fossils from that era yet,” Professor Dowler said.

“But it could be of a different kind – Homo erectus or Homo naledi “There were a number of human species at that time in South Africa.”

The wooden artefacts were transported to the UK for analysis and conservation, where they are stored in tanks that mimic the waterlogging that has beautifully preserved them over the past half a million years. But she will soon return to Zambia to exhibit.

“With this discovery, we hope to enrich our collection and use the discoveries to enrich the interpretation of Zambia’s carpentry tradition,” Ms Nkombwe said.

She added that continuing work at the Kalambo Falls site “has the potential to deepen our knowledge of ancient carpentry techniques, craftsmanship, and human interactions with the environment.”

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