Wooden structure that consists of two logs attached to each other by a wide notch

Larry Barham and research team has discovered a half-million-year-old wooden structure hidden in sediment near the Kalambo Falls in Zambia.

The find has turned my understanding of what early humans can do upside down

Larry Barham, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Liverpool

The wooden structure consists of two logs attached to each other by a wide notch. The find is the first evidence that wood may have been used for building structures as early as 476 000 years ago, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

“Because the area is humid, the structure may have been used for walking on, or as a platform to keep things dry”, says Larry Barham.

Light Reveals Age

The findings are remarkable as wood rarely survives for long periods. The wood had been preserved thanks to the humid and acidic environment of the river’s sediment that are starved of oxygen. The age of the logs was then determined using luminescence dating1.

“We have taken several samples from different parts of the wood so we are very confident about the age”, says Geoff Duller, Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University in Wales, who helped date the findings.

Homo erectus

There is no evidence of what kind of human being might have created the wooden structure because the acidic environment makes it difficult for skeletons to be preserved.

“It could be a descendant of Homo erectus, the longest-lived of all human species. The oldest finds have been dated to 1.8 million years ago”, says Larry Barham.

Stone Age engineers

However, the discovery opens up new ideas about what humans were capable of doing at that time.

“Whoever was able to do this must have had a large brain, been able to plan and probably had a language to express themselves. A kind of engineering. We need to reassess our assumptions about hunter-gatherers from this period”, says Larry Barham

The findings are published in Nature.

  1. A way to measure when different minerals were last exposed to sunlight.
    All soils and sediments contain low levels of radioactive substances that break down over time and are stored in mineral grains. The longer these mineral grains have been in the sediments, the more energy is stored. By stimulating the mineral grains with either light or heat, the stored energy is released in the form of luminescence, or light, which corresponds to the age of the object. ↩︎

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