Neither so simple, nor so primitive and, above all, not so stone. Researchers from the Universities of Liverpool and Aberystwyth have found a Stone Age wooden structure at Kalambo Waterfall, where it shouldn't be or, rather, when it shouldn't be.

It is not yet known what it is exactly. Whether a raised platform to contemplate the waterfall, whether a walkway to cross the river, or the foundations of a wooden city. What is certain is that they are 476,000 years old. That is, it was built half a million years before the hominids that populated the earth knew how to do that kind of thing. Or at least, that's what was thought until now.

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"This find has changed the way I think about our early ancestors," explains Professor Larry Barham, from the University of Liverpool's Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, of his finding published in Nature. What's more, "you have to forget about the label 'Stone Age', look what these people were doing: they made something new and big with wood. They used their intelligence, imagination, and skills to create something they had never seen before, and had never existed before. They transformed their environment to make life easier, if only by making a platform to sit by the river and perform their daily tasks. These people looked more like us than we thought."

It will be more difficult to find the culprits within the genus Homo. They could well be the very tall (1.75 meters) and extinct Homo heidelbergensis, which emerged more than 600,000 years ago and lasted at least until 200,000 years ago, or Homo rhodesiensis.

Until now, evidence of human use of wood was limited to making fire, digging sticks, and spears. But shaping tree trunks to create large structures and combining them to fit together makes Kalambo the oldest evidence anywhere in the world of such a thing.

The find consists of two trunks joined transversely by an intentionally cut notch. The upper trunk had also been shaped and tool marks were found on both trunks. Next to it appeared a collection of wooden tools.

Two researchers at the Kalambo waterfall.Professor Geoff Duller

Wooden artifacts rarely survive from the early Stone Age. They rot and disappear, which makes this material one of the great unknowns of prehistory. There is very limited information about when and how hominids used this basic raw material, or how Pleistocene humans structured their environments. The wood requires exceptional conditions for its conservation, something that has been achieved in Kalambo, with high and permanent water levels, so the authors suggest that the use of trees in history should be reexamined.

The discovery also challenges the prevailing view that Stone Age humans were nomadic. There was no reason not to settle at the 235-metre Kalambo waterfall and on Zambia's border with Tanzania's Rukwa region on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. A permanent source of water surrounded by a forest that fed them and allowed them to build structures, and which now appears on a provisional UNESCO list to become a World Heritage Site due to its archaeological importance.

The specialized dating of these findings was carried out by experts from the University of Aberystwyth with new techniques by luminescence, which allow to discover the last time that the minerals of the sand surrounding the finds were exposed to sunlight.

One of the structures found. Professor Geoff Duller

"At this great age, dating findings is a big challenge. These new dating methods have far-reaching implications, because they allow us to date much further back in time to reconstruct scenarios, and give us insight into human evolution. Our research shows that this site is much older than previously thought." explains Professor Geoff Duller from Aberystwyth University. The surroundings of the waterfall began to be excavated in the 1960s. Similar pieces of wood were already recovered at that time, but they could not be dated with this precision.

This research is part of the pioneering 'Deep Roots of Humanity' project, an investigation into how human technology developed in the Stone Age. The project is funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council and involves teams from the Zambia National Heritage Conservation Commission, the Livingstone Museum, the Moto Moto Museum and the Lusaka National Museum.

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