At the Kalambo Falls archaeological site in northeastern Zambia , archaeologists recovered specimens of ancient wood in the form of logs that had been preserved in waterlogged sand next to the Kalambo River for nearly a half-a-million years—or for 476,000 years, to be more exact. While the discoverers weren’t sure what they had found, a new study by archaeologists from the University of Liverpool and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom revealed that the logs were intentionally cut and shaped to be used as building materials. Using a new dating technology known as luminescence, the archaeologists were able to confirm the astonishing age of these incredibly ancient artifacts.
The excavation team uncovering the oldest wooden structure (Professor Larry Barham, University of Liverpool/ Nature)
Pioneering Hominins: Crafting the World’s Oldest Wooden Structure
As of now, these are the remains of the oldest wooden structure found anywhere in the world. There was a polished wooden plank found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site in Israel, which was made 780,000 years ago. But that was a simple artifact that likely wouldn’t have been part of an actual building.
It should be noted that Homo sapiens (modern man) had not yet evolved this long ago. That leaves no doubt that the construction team responsible for building the 476,000-year-old structure in ancient Zambia consisted exclusively of early human ancestors .
“The finds show an unexpected early diversity of forms and the capacity to shape tree trunks into large, combined structures,” the study authors wrote in an article just published in Nature. “These new data not only extend the age range of woodworking in Africa but expand our understanding of the technical cognition of early hominins, forcing re-examination of the use of trees in the history of technology.”
Stone tools were used to cut and shape the two logs, which were laid crossways and attached to form the foundation for a platform or for the walls of some type of dwelling. It cannot be overstated just how amazing this one-of-a-kind discovery is, as it represents by far the earliest evidence of the use of cut logs as building materials.
A flint used to shape the wooden structure. (Professor Larry Barham, University of Liverpool/ Nature)
Usually, wood does not last for hundreds of thousands of years, as it usually rots and decays away long before that. But Kalambo River water levels are higher than normal at the Kalambo Falls site, which saturated the surrounding sand and helped protect the cut logs from the erosive and corrosive forces of nature.
Up to this point, it was believed that archaic humans living a half-million years ago would have only been using wood to make digging sticks or spears, or to make fire. But this astonishing new discovery proves that the woodworking abilities of archaic hominin species have been severely underestimated.
Tracking the Triumph of the Stone Age Builders
This enlightening finding contradicts the notion that early Stone Age humans were strictly nomadic, practicing their hunter-gatherer lifestyle exclusively on the go.
It seems some of these archaic hominins realized that Kalambo Falls was an excellent place to settle down, since the deep river offered a reliable source of fresh water that was constantly replenished by the 772-foot (235-m) waterfall that towered above the surrounding landscape. Meanwhile the forest in this part of the interior of southern Africa would have provided ample building materials and food sources to support a small permanent population.
The only downside of living in such a location would have been the occasional flooding. It’s possible that the early humans who lived there constructed their simple houses on raised platforms, to protect them from the water when the Kalambo River would overflow its banks. Given the crosswise arrangement of the newly recovered 476,000-year-old logs, they may have once been part of such a platform.
In a University of Liverpool press release, archaeologist Larry Barham, who leads the ‘Deep Roots of Humanity’ research project responsible for these new findings, explained their impact.
Professor Larry Barham (pictured, right) uncovering the wooden structure on the banks of the river with a fine spray. (Professor Geoff Duller, Aberystwyth University/ Nature)
“This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors,” he said. “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.”
“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,” Professor Barham continued. “These folks were more like us than we thought.”
A One-of-a-Kind Site
Previous discoveries at the Kalambo Falls site, which is located on the border that separates northeastern Zambia from Tanzania, have already established that this location was populated well back into antiquity. Because of its archaeological significance, Kalambo Falls has already been added to UNESCO’s “tentative” list for inclusion as a World Heritage site.
Current research at Kalambo Falls is being carried out exclusively by archaeologists affiliated with the ‘ Deep Roots of Humanity’ project. This initiative is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, and participants include archaeologists and other experts from Zambia’s National Heritage Conservation Commission, Livingstone Museum, Moto Museum and National Museum in Lusaka.
“Our research proves that this site is much older than previously thought, so its archaeological significance is now even greater,” stated Aberystwyth University archaeologist and study co-author Geoff Duller. “It adds more weight to the argument that it should be a United Nations World Heritage Site.”
Whether it is awarded this status or not, Kalambo Falls will always be recognized as the site where the oldest wooden structure found anywhere in the world was recovered.
Top image: Left; Kalambo Falls, Zambia where the oldest wooden structure was found. Right: the excavation team uncovering the ancient wood. Source: Left; Professor Geoff Duller/ Nature, Right; Professor Larry Barham/ Nature
By Nathan Falde