Though humans of today have all sorts of ways to use wood in an endless variety of finishes, one thing has always been true: Wood’s been an important building material for a very, very long time. Now, stunning findings from an archaeological site in Zambia suggest that mankind has manipulated the material for a lot longer than previously thought—possibly upending long-held assumptions about how early humans lived.
A team of archaeologists at a dig site along Zambia’s Kalambo Falls recently unearthed two bush willow tree logs bearing clear signs that they had been notched, shaped, and joined through the use of stone tools. What makes the discovery so striking isn’t the technique itself, but the age of the craftsmanship: a technique called luminescence dating indicated that the wood was roughly 476,000 years old. By comparison, the oldest fossilized Homo sapiens remains date back to 300,000 years ago, and the first record of wooden tools by an earlier human ancestor dates back 400,000 years.
The surprising discovery of what Nature refers to as “the earliest evidence for structural use of wood in the archaeological record” effectively rewrites the story of what early humans—believed in this case to be the work of an evolutionary precursor to Homo sapiens—were capable of. Specifically, it suggests a greater degree of coordination, skill, and, subsequently, cognition than modern man ancestors were thought to possess.
“The finds show an unexpected early diversity of forms and the capacity to shape tree trunks into large combined structures,” the study, lead authored by Larry Barham of the University of Liverpool, states. “These new data not only extend the age range of woodworking in Africa, but expand our understanding of the technical cognition of early hominins.”