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What is the world's oldest wooden structure?

In 2023, a team of archeologist discovered the oldest-known wooden structure near Kalambo Falls in northern Zambia.
Charlotte E. T. Huyghe
Wikimedia Commons
In 2023, a team of archeologist discovered the oldest-known wooden structure near Kalambo Falls in northern Zambia.

Until recently, archeologists dated the oldest human-made wooden structures as 5,000 years or younger — homes made by Neolithic Europeans, Buddhist temples of Japan and longhouses of Native Americans.

But a research team recently pushed back the date of the earliest wooden structures by hundreds of centuries! Archeologists unearthed an amazingly well-preserved wooden structure near Kalambo Falls in northern Zambia. It dates back to almost half a million years.

The structure is very basic — just a platform whose purpose was probably to keep its occupants above the water of the river. It consists of two large logs, connected by notches bearing sharp cut-marks, proof that the platform’s makers used stone tools to join them.

Given that trees cover much of the planet, you’d think that we’d find scores of ancient wooden structures, but, of course, wood rots quickly. This platform in Zambia only lasted for so long because it was submerged in a river, preserving it over the centuries.

Traditional dating techniques couldn’t properly date the platform, so researchers used luminescence dating, a technique that measures the last time the surrounding mineral grains were exposed to sunlight before they were buried.

That analysis nailed the age of that structure at 476,000 years old — before Homo sapiens evolved. So those logs would have been shaped by an earlier human cousin — possibly Homo heidelbergensis — who lived in Africa at that time.

This discovery changes the way we think about our early ancestors. We assumed that they were nomadic, but this research suggests those people might have had semi-permanent settlements, and modified the environment so they could invest in their place. Head researcher Larry Barham wrote: “This discovery gives us insights into just how important wood must have been to ancient humans. We might need to rethink our labelling of the Stone Age. Maybe it was more of a wood age.”

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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