Wedge shaped wood

A wedge shaped piece of wood CREDIT: Professor Larry Barham, University of Liverpool

LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — Researchers in Africa have unearthed the world’s oldest man-made wooden structures, fundamentally changing our understanding of early human behavior and abilities. Dating back at least 476,000 years, these structures are far older than scientists previously believed possible and even predate the existence of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool and Aberystwyth University carried out excavations at Kalambo Falls in Zambia. Typically, wood decays and vanishes over time, but the high water levels at this site preserved the ancient wooden artifacts.

Their preservation allowed experts to observe markings made by stone tools, revealing that early humans had deliberately shaped and joined large logs. These logs likely served as the foundation for a platform or part of a residence.

two researchers at excavation site in Zambia looking at long black wooden structure on the ground.
The excavation team uncovering the wooden structure (credit: Professor Larry Barham, University of Liverpool)

Previously, evidence of early human use of wood was restricted to simpler applications such as making fires, digging sticks, and spears. This new discovery suggests a far more complex use, challenging the notion that early humans were strictly nomadic, wandering in search of food and shelter.

“This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors. Forget the label ‘Stone Age,’ look at what these people were doing: they made something new, and large, from wood,” says Professor Larry Barham of Liverpool University, who heads the Deep Roots of Humanity project, in a media release. “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. These folks were more like us than we thought.”

To accurately date these ancient artifacts, scientists at Aberystwyth University employed state-of-the-art luminescence dating techniques. This method measures the last time that minerals in the sand surrounding the artifacts were exposed to sunlight.

“At this great age, putting a date on finds is very challenging and we used luminescence dating to do this,” says Professor Geoff Duller of Aberystwyth University. “These new dating methods have far-reaching implications – allowing us to date much further back in time, to piece together sites that give us a glimpse into human evolution.”

picture of of waterfall in Zambia
Kalambo Falls, Zambia where the wood was found. (credit: Professor Geoff Duller, Aberystwyth University)

The Kalambo Falls site is located near a 772-foot waterfall on the Zambia-Tanzania border, adjacent to Lake Tanganyika. It is currently on a ‘tentative’ list for becoming a United Nations World Heritage Site due to its archaeological significance.

“Our research proves that this site is much older than previously thought, so its archaeological significance is now even greater,” Prof. Duller adds.

The team is optimistic that Kalambo Falls will reveal even more intriguing discoveries in the future, underscoring its status as a major heritage asset for Zambia.

“The Deep Roots team is looking forward to more exciting discoveries emerging from its waterlogged sands,” concludes Prof. Barham.

The wooden structure, showing where Stone Age Humans have cut into the wood
The wooden structure, showing where Stone Age Humans have cut into the wood CREDIT: Professor Larry Barham, University of Liverpool

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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