World’s oldest wooden structure found in Zambia – DW – 09/20/2023

Archaeologists working near Zambia’s Kalambo Falls say they have unearthed the world’s oldest wooden structure. 

Embedded in clay and further preserved by a high water table, scientists say the structure, made from the logs of a large-fruited willow tree, was intentionally created roughly 476,000 years ago.

The well-preserved specimen was made before the advent of Homo sapiens, which archaeologists say points to a vastly higher cognitive ability than has been previously ascribed to such ancient ancestors.

The oldest wooden structure known before the announcement of the Zambia find was just 9,000 years old. The oldest known wooden artefact, discovered in Israel, is a 780,000-year-old fragment of plank.

Find also suggests breaks in nomadic lifestyle

Larry Barham, an archaeologist from the University of Liverpool in the UK, told AFP news agency the structure, located above a 235-meter-high (770 foot) waterfall on the banks of Zambia’s Kalambo River, had been discovered by chance in 2019.

Barham was the lead author of a paper outlining the find in the scientific journal Nature.

“The framework could have supported a walkway or platform raised above the seasonally wet surroundings. A platform could have multiple purposes including storage of firewood, tools, food and as a foundation on which to place a hut,” said Barham.

“Not only did the working of trees require considerable skill, the right tools and planning, the effort involved suggests that the makers were staying in the location for extended periods whereas we have always had a model of Stone Age people as nomadic,” Barham added.

“Use of wood in this way suggests the cognitive ability to these early humans was greater than we have believed based on stone tools alone,” according to Barham.

Scientists also discovered numerous tools wooden tools from the same time at the site, though they say no skeletal remains have been discovered.

Scientists say dense clay and a high water table helped preserve the structure for nearly half a million yearsImage: Larry Barham/AP/picture alliance

Homo heidelbergensis, smarter than he looked

Scientist Barham suggested the structure, which “involves the intentional shaping of two trees to create a framework of two interlocking supports,” was likely created by a species that lived between 700,000 and 200,000 years ago known as Homo heidelbergensis.

The species had a larger brow, larger braincase and flatter face than earlier human species.

Barham told AFP that Homo heidelbergensis fossils have been previously found in the region.

The oldest Homo sapiens fossils known to date were found in Morocco and determined to be roughly 300,000 years old.

Wood last saw sunlight half a million years ago

Though wooden artefacts were first unearthed at the site in the 1950s and 60s, scientists at the time were unable to accurately determine their age.

Archaeologists working on the current specimens used what is called luminescence dating, a new technique that determines age by measuring the last time minerals were exposed to sunlight.

The discovery said Barham: “changed how I thought about these people. 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,” he said.

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

A brief history of humankind

What distinguishes humans from animals? What is culture? Did Homo sapiens and Neanderthals co-exist at any time in history? A museum in Bonn answers these questions by revisiting 100,000 years of cultural history.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/A. Avital

From molecules to the nuclear bomb

Life and death are inseparable. The exhibition “A Brief History of Humankind” in Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle museum shows how, 13.8 billion years ago, molecules began to connect and turn into structured organisms. The above video still by US artist Bruce Conner shows what could spell the end of evolution: the nuclear bomb.

general.image.copyright_prefix B. Connor

Remains of the oldest Eurasian hearth dating back 780,000 years were discovered on the banks of the river Jordan. The ability to control fire was a turning point in evolutionary history that moved mankind to the top of the food chain. Fire gave light, kept people warm; people cooked over a fire and used it to make stone tools. It was a gathering place – a Stone Age TV.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/E. Posner

Homo sapiens had a fleeting chin, slanting forehead and a narrow brow ridge. The above skull is about 100,000 years old and was found in Israel, where Homo sapiens co-existed with Neanderthals for quite some time. All of the artifacts displayed in the Bonn exhibition are from Israel – and it’s the first time they are on view in Europe.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem

This Neanderthal skull was unearthed in the Amud Cave in Galilee. Anatomically, it is nothing like the skull of Homo sapiens: the chin is even more fleeting, the back of the head shows an indentation. These early humans not only fulfilled their basic needs, archaeologists also found they held burial rituals and other forms of culture.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/E. Posner

What makes us human? Family plays a huge role. Apart from historical objects, the exhibition also presents works by contemporary artists. US sculptor Charles Ray’s 1993 “Family Romance” shows the fine line that connects family. In this sculpture, two parents hold their offspring’s hands; however, the normalcy of a nuclear family is disrupted as both son and daughter are as tall as mom and dad.

general.image.copyright_prefix R. Charles

Humans started forming figurines depicting gods about 8,000 years ago, at a time when people were settling, planting fields and forming communities. They created goddesses they could pray to for good harvests and fertility. The phallic shape in the above photo could also symbolize a male god. Lines and etchings indicate abstract portraits.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/E. Posner

Unlike animals, humans can collect and write down knowledge. The Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia began to record information and numbers. This clay tablet was inscribed between 4,000 and 3,100 BC, paving the way for the complex memory systems needed to build cities and empires.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/E. Posner

This coin made of electrum, a gold and silver alloy, is the oldest-known coin in the world. Embossed with the picture of a grazing stag, it is from the seventh century BC. Of course, other forms of payment already existed: sea shells, pearls and promissory notes.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/Y. Hovav

In the third century BC, Arad was a flourishing business center at the crossroads of two trade routes in the Middle East. For 350 years, it was a magnificent city of palaces, temples and homes. The above model shows a typical square one-room dwelling with a flat roof, dating back to between 3,000 to 2,650 BC.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/A. Hay

In 1912, Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity, a sensation and a scientific revolution. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem owns the original manuscript to E=mc². The mathematical formula embodies the two sides of progress: With it, mankind gained important insight into physics, but it also enabled the creation of the first nuclear bomb.

general.image.copyright_prefix The Israel Museum Jerusalem/A. Avital


js/msh (AFP, Reuters)


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