Two pieces of preserved wood have been discovered at an archaeological site in Zambia that indicate that ancient humans had developed woodworking techniques to build structures nearly a half-million years ago, extending our use of this near-universal building technology to a point before modern humans even emerged.

Made from the wood of a bushwillow tree, the two pieces of wood have been dated to be 476,000 years old, and had been deliberately carved with stone tools to include notches so that one piece could be joined with the other, in the same fashion that the timbers of a log cabin are fitted together.

“The structure involves the intentional shaping of two trees to create a framework of two interlocking supports,” explained lead study author Larry Barham, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool. “A notch was cut into the overlying log and the underlying tree was shaped to fit through the notch. This arrangement prevents the overlying log from moving side to side, giving stability to the structure.”

As for their intended purpose, the pieces appear to have been part of a platform that had been fashioned to raise either its builders or their belongings off of the ground. “The framework could have supported a walkway or platform raised above the seasonally wet surroundings,” Barham said. “A platform could have multiple purposes including storage of firewood, tools, food and as a foundation on which to place a hut.”

Although there is no indication of who had built the structure, its construction predated the emergence of modern humans, as the earliest known evidence of Homo sapiens is only 315,000 years old.

Wood is notoriously hard to find in the archaeological record, as it tends to quickly decay and disappear before it can be preserved under layers of soil, leaving us with a poor understanding of how woodworking techniques had evolved throughout antiquity. As it stands, the previously-oldest known artifact made from worked wood was discovered at an excavation in Florisbad, South Africa that dated to somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years old.

“While the vast majority of archaeological sites of this age preserve only the stone tools, Kalambo Falls provides us a unique insight into the wooden objects that these tools were being used to create, allowing us a much richer and more complete picture of the lives of these people,” explained study co-author Geoff Duller, of Wales’ Aberystwyth University.

Aside from illustrating how far into the past human ingenuity extends, this find also challenges the assumption that our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and may have built more permanent structures to facilitate settlements.

“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.

“The finds from Kalambo Falls indicate that these hominins, like Homo sapiens, had the capacity to alter their surroundings, creating a built environment,” Barham said. “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.”

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