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476,000-year-old ancient woodworking discovery rewrites early human history

The archaeological landscape is rarely static. Discoveries continuously shift our understanding of the past, forcing us to redraw the boundaries of what we thought was possible or likely. A recent find on ancient woodworkings at Kalambo Falls, Zambia, is a prime example – it introduces us to early hominin builders with unexpected skills, operating long before the rise of Homo sapiens.

Kalambo falls

The unique conditions at Kalambo Falls were instrumental in the extraordinary preservation of ancient woodworking artifacts.

The site’s lush vegetation, sustained by a reliable water source, provided the necessities of life, making it a consistently appealing location for various hominin species across vast stretches of time. This long-term occupation increased the likelihood of artifacts being left behind.

Periodic flooding events deposited layers of sediment that protected these precious remnants from decay and the ravages of time. The layered deposits act as a natural time capsule. They enable scientists to create a chronological framework and associate artifacts with specific periods in prehistory.

Ancient woodworking

Two interlocking logs, each exceeding a meter in length, form the foundation of this study. These wooden artifacts offer a multitude of clues about our ancient ancestors.

The wood used in the logs has been identified as bushwillow, a species common to the African savannah. This provides valuable information about the types of plants and resources that were accessible to hominins in the region.

The logs exhibit clear signs of modification, including notching, tapered ends, scraping, and potential evidence of burning. These features suggest someone deliberately manipulated the wood using techniques rarely observed in artifacts from this early time period.

The intentional notches on the logs indicate designers made them to assemble into a larger structure. This structure could have served as a platform, shelter, or another type of construction that archaeologists are still trying to identify.

The level of skill required to modify and assemble these logs indicates that these early hominins possessed greater cognitive abilities and technological sophistication than previously believed. These findings challenge traditional perceptions of these ancient humans and their skillsets.

Precise dating of ancient woodworking

Determining the precise age of the wooden structure was essential to understanding its significance. To achieve this, scientists turned to the unique geological features of Kalambo Falls and employed a specialized dating technique called Infrared Stimulated Luminescence (IRSL).

IRSL targets specific minerals like feldspar, commonly found within sediment layers. These minerals contain a natural ‘clock’ affected by background radiation.

Over time, the minerals accumulate energy due to the constant, low-level radiation present in the environment. However, exposure to sunlight resets this natural clock.

By measuring the amount of energy trapped within the feldspar crystals since they were last exposed to sunlight, scientists can determine how long the sediment layers (and the artifacts within them) have been buried.

IRSL analysis revealed a truly astonishing result: the wooden structure at Kalambo Falls was constructed approximately 476,000 years ago. This places the structure’s creation firmly within the Middle Pleistocene, a fascinating epoch of early human evolution.

Who were the builders?

The age of the structure, determined at approximately 476,000 years old, has profound implications. This places its construction well before the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The fact that hominins built a structure during this earlier period forces us to reevaluate our understanding of their capabilities.

Researchers theorize that the impressive skill and knowledge required for this kind of woodworking must have been possessed by a different hominin species. This opens up a fascinating line of inquiry as scientists consider possible candidates.

Species like Homo heidelbergensis, known to have existed during this era, become a likely possibility. However, an even older, yet-to-be-discovered hominin ancestor could also be responsible for this astonishing feat.

Implications of ancient woodworking

The term “Stone Age” carries the connotation of simple tools and a focus on bare survival. However, the discovery of a complex wooden structure forces us to reconsider this definition.

Moreover, sophisticated woodworking and construction indicate a level of technological advancement that extends beyond stone toolmaking, suggesting a much richer toolkit and broader knowledge base than previously assumed.

This structure was not merely a makeshift solution for immediate needs. The time, effort, and skill invested in its creation point to deliberate action and a desire to modify the environment for a specific purpose.

It reflects a level of planning and forethought that transcends simple survival instincts, suggesting a more complex thought process and perhaps even long-term goals.

Social organization

The coordination necessary to create such a structure hints at a developed form of social organization and communication.

Hominins would likely need to work together, share knowledge, and possibly even have some form of leadership to execute this project.

This finding emphasizes that human ingenuity, inventiveness, and collaborative skills have deep roots stretching back far further than we once believed.

“These people were doing 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,” noted Larry Barham, the lead archaeologist.

Their work underscores the adaptability of our lineage and opens doors to further research about the dawn of human ingenuity.

This research was published in Nature.


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