476,000-year-old wooden structure shows early humans were more sophisticated than we thought

Many people view complex technologies as the great dividers between modern humans and our Stone Age ancestors who lived eons ago. In our fast-paced world, we often disparagingly refer to older technologies, even those from just a few years ago, as if they belong in the “Stone Age.”

Yet, these labels can sometimes sever the connection we share with our ancient kin, who possessed a surprising level of sophistication. Consider the recent discovery led by archaeologist Larry Barham and his team at the University of Liverpool. They unveiled compelling, well-dated evidence of the earliest utilization of wood technology, dating back an astonishing 476,000 years. This revelation emerged from the waterlogged deposits at Kalambo Falls, Zambia, a site known for harboring traces of human culture stretching back hundreds of millennia.

Among the astonishingly well-preserved finds were a wooden wedge, a digging stick, a meticulously shaped log, and a branch bearing the mark of tools – a notch cut into it. But why, in this era dominated by AI and robotics, does this ancient wood technology from almost half a million years ago captivate the attention of both scholars and the general public?

The significance of the Kalambo Falls evidence lies in the astounding prowess of early hominins, our ancient human relatives. They displayed an ability to source and manipulate wood with tools, fashioning not only an array of implements but also sophisticated wooden structures. The exact species responsible remains uncertain, but Homo heidelbergensis and species akin to Homo naledi are prime candidates, among others.

These findings profoundly reshape our comprehension of how sustainable materials were harnessed in the Early Stone Age and offer valuable insights into the capabilities of our early human forebears.

From speculation to fact

Archaeology delves into the intricate annals of human history by examining the remnants left behind by our forebears. However, these historical insights bear the inherent bias of favoring artifacts and materials that have either withstood the relentless march of time or, though decayed, have left discernible traces.

For nearly 99% of our history, humanity resided in what we term the Stone Age. The Early Stone Age stands as the earliest and, perhaps, the most enduring epoch of technological evolution, spanning a staggering timeline from nearly four million years ago to 300,000 years ago.

Our knowledge of this early phase of human development primarily revolves around stone tools. The reason behind this is simple: inorganic materials like rocks exhibit nearly indestructible durability compared to their perishable counterparts, like wood.

Indeed, wood is a rarity within deposits from the Early Stone Age. It demands exceptionally favorable preservation conditions to elude decay. It endures solely in environments at the extremes, be it the arid deserts or the incredibly damp settings akin to Kalambo Falls.

In light of this scarcity, the tangible evidence of intentional wood use dating back over 400,000 years revolutionizes our comprehension of wood as a technology and how long our ancestors engaged with this versatile material. Wood served as a means to craft tools, erect shelters, secure sustenance, and possibly even as fuel, ingrained into the fabric of their daily lives.

While researchers had long suspected the extensive application of wood technology by early hominins, hard, irrefutable evidence was a missing piece of the puzzle. Archaeology, grounded in the pursuit of discovery and evidence, adheres to the axiom of “seeing is believing.” The discovery at Kalambo Falls transcended mere conjecture, elevating it to incontrovertible fact, thereby reshaping our narrative of technological history.

Benefiting the environment

Challenges arise when we confront historical narratives that tend to lean toward a progressive or linear viewpoint—a notion that perceives history as an inexorable march toward modernity via scientific and technological prowess.

Historically, some scientists held the belief that early hominin minds were comparatively limited in comparison to contemporary humans. They postulated that technology and culture evolved towards greater sophistication as human brain sizes expanded, progressing from a presumed “primitive” state to the intricate, algorithm-driven world of today.

However, despite the increase in brain size and the evolution of technology, it’s plausible that our predecessors possessed a remarkable understanding of their natural surroundings and exhibited a deep reverence for the environment.

The purposefully crafted wooden structure uncovered at Kalambo Falls stands as a testament to their ingenuity, technological prowess, and creativity—a manifestation of what we might term “green technology” in the modern era.

Ideas of “progress” are deeply embedded within our cultural psyche and can often serve as a surrogate for the exceptionalism of Homo sapiens— the conviction that our species possesses unique qualities in comparison to earlier hominins. Setting aside these preconceptions allows us to acknowledge that so-called “primitive technologies” can have a profoundly positive impact on the environment and the planet.

Wood, due to its perishable nature, emerges as a more sustainable material compared to some contemporary construction materials that endure almost indefinitely, leaving conspicuous remains. The production of these modern materials also releases greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

Certainly, there are inherent risks in employing wood as a construction material, such as susceptibility to fire and decay. However, in suitable circumstances, we should uphold our longstanding tradition of utilizing wood. Perhaps, in this context, the ancients were not as “backward” as commonly perceived but rather more progressive in their stewardship of the planet through prudent decision-making.

In essence, the evidence unearthed at Kalambo Falls suggests that early hominins occasionally harnessed materials beyond stone for their daily necessities, including tool-making and shelter. They might have adeptly utilized environmental resources for fuel and medicinal purposes as well.

Nonetheless, we require further direct evidence spanning back to the dawn of the Stone Age to elucidate how our predecessors interacted with and manipulated wood. Additional discoveries akin to this one might even compel us to rethink the moniker “Stone Age” and consider renaming it as the “Wood Age.”

Source: The Conversation

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